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Watts College Dean Koppell and family endow scholarship fund in the names of his grandmothers

Scholarship to help first-generation students focused on child well-being puts exclamation point on Campaign ASU 2020 for college

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine, Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell, scholarship fund, Jonathan Koppell
January 28, 2021

An endowment from the family of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions Dean Jonathan Koppell honors the memory of his grandmothers and will help support students from the college seeking careers that address child well-being, particularly among refugee communities.

The Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell and Elsie Kopstein Sunshine Scholarship Fund was created with an initial investment of $25,000 from their children and grandchildren as Arizona State University’s 10-year fundraising initiative, Campaign ASU 2020, drew to a close in December.

Jonathan Koppell said the emphasis on recipients’ career choices involving children and refugees reflects the lives and values of both his grandmothers, who had a passion for children in common. The emphasis on refugees reflects a seminal episode in Gabrielle Koppell’s life when she secretly shepherded Jewish children from Nazi Germany to safety in America. Scholarship-award preference will be given to first-generation college students as a nod to Elsie Sunshine, who was the first person in her family to graduate college.

The Koppell/Sunshine scholarship was created on Dec. 31, marking the completion of the Watts College portion of ASU Foundation’s Campaign ASU 2020, a 10-year effort to build support for the university and its efforts to serve the needs of society in the 21st century. The campaign raised about $70 million for Watts College, surpassing the goal of $60 million. These contributions – including the naming investment by Cindy and Mike Watts – have transformed the college, expanding its programs to support students, increasing its research impact and driving service to the community.

Dean Koppell recalled the strong impact that both his grandmothers had on him.

“My father’s mother – Oma – was deeply engaged with politics and global affairs. Owing to her own experience fleeing from her home from Nazi persecution, she was very concerned with abuse of power and social justice,” he said. “My mother’s mother was a teacher and raised three children who ended up in higher education leadership. Obviously, her values influenced them, and I didn’t stray far from the path!”

Elsie Sunshine and her four siblings graduated from the City University of New York, which the dean described as “the spiritual ancestor of ASU as an institution committed to inclusion and excellence. Like so many Watts College students, they were first-gen college grads who used education to change their lives.”

Koppell said his grandmothers would be proud to have this scholarship in their names and be pleased to see the support go to ASU students.

“Although they surely never imagined their grandson would end up in Arizona, I think they would understand completely why I am so dedicated to this institution and its mission,” he said. “These two women made a huge impression on me both directly — I was lucky to really get to know both as people — and indirectly through the influence they had on their children, my parents. From them come the basic imperatives that drive me — make a difference in the world, do something that helps people — and I see Watts College and our students carrying that forward.”

Koppell's uncle, Eugene Sunshine, emphasized his mother “would be incredibly pleased and flattered to know that a scholarship was named after her and Gabi, a person my mother greatly respected.”

“The access and inclusivity aspects of the ASU mission go right to the core of what she felt was important in her teaching and related help for her students,” Sunshine said.

Sunshine recalled that virtually all of his mother’s students over the years had serious physical and/or mental disabilities that added an extra dimension to her teaching.

“It necessitated her being much more of a teacher in the traditional sense to be successful. She met that challenge with much affection and respect for her students,” Sunshine said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the emphasis of the scholarship being directed to child well-being, with particular attention on refugees, would bring her much joy. Incalculable personal pleasure would also come her way if she knew her grandson was a key player in helping to make the scholarship happen at a special university.”

Koppell’s father, Oliver Koppell, said he knows that his mother, Gabrielle, “would be enormously pleased and gratified by a scholarship being named in her honor. She was someone who tremendously valued education. She earned a PhD from Heidelberg University when very few women achieved that kind of academic recognition. She was very committed to education and even started a nursery school and kindergarten, thinking this was very important to kids.

“She would have been pleased that this scholarship is being offered to a community of young people who are going further in education than their parents perhaps have been. That Watts College is doing this would have particularly pleased her,” Oliver Koppell said.

The elder Koppell said his mother and Jonathan had a close relationship in which she shared many of her life experiences with her grandson. He said he is sure her influence was key to Jonathan’s interest in education.

Gabrielle’s daughter, Olivia, focused on the thread of social justice that cuts across generations in the family.

“Because of my mother’s life experience, war and peace, culture in the broadest sense, politics and community were the subjects of most of our family conversations,” Olivia Koppell said. "My mother and father lived through the horror of World War I in Germany. Then both had to leave jobs, homes, family and country to escape to America. I know that my mother’s constant yearning and working for a better world had a profound effect on me and my brother Oliver. In turn, his pursuits had a profound effect on Jonathan, who chose a different, but equally impactful route involving education and community.

“Watts College and ASU recognize the path forward depends on young people. As an immigrant/refugee herself, who brought children here to escape war, Gabrielle would be a most passionate advocate for Jonathan’s work at ASU, and the fund; with its focus on immigrants who look to education to improve not just their lives but the community in which they find themselves.” 

Oliver Koppell agreed.

“Knowing a bit about ASU now through him, I’m impressed with the accomplishments of the institution and the mission of the institution,” he said. “I know that my mother, Gabi, would just be enormously pleased that her name was associated with this enterprise.”

The first recipients of an award from the Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell and Elsie Kopstein Sunshine Scholarship will be named for the fall 2021 semester. These biographies of the two women for whom the endowment is named, provided by the family of Jonathan Koppell and the ASU Foundation, will be provided to the recipients:

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell had a profound impact on the lives of countless young people by helping refugee children escape Nazi Europe, founding a New York preschool and raising two children.

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell, sister, Elsa

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell (left) with her sister Elsa Drucker. Photo courtesy of the Koppell family

Born in Weinheim, Germany, in 1910, Gabrielle excelled as a student, culminating in earning a PhD in geopolitics from Heidelberg University in 1928 — quite unusual for women at the time. By 1933, Gabrielle moved to London, recognizing the dim future as the Nazis rose to power. 

Even with a PhD, employment for women was limited and Koppell was working as a governess when contacted by a group of American Jews concerned about the fate of German Jewish people under Hitler. In 1934, she agreed to chaperone the first group of 11 children sent out of Germany to America by their parents. 

Risking her own safety by returning to Germany, Gabrielle brought the children to America via England and cared for them (and others) as house mother at the Clara de Hirsch House in New York City, until they were placed with foster families across America. The success of this secret initiative — carried out in defiance of policies that restricted immigration of Jews — led to a version of the British “Kindertransport” program that brought 1,000 children to safety in America. 

While Gabrielle continued to work on child resettlement with a charity known as German/Jewish Self Help (this charity is still in existence), she reconnected in New York with Henry Koppell, a book publisher she knew in Germany, and they were married in 1940. They had two children, Oliver and Olivia. 

When her husband’s publishing business failed, Gabrielle started an after-school program to earn income while remaining home with her own children. In 1950, early childhood education was in its infancy, but she recognized the growing need for nursery schools with women joining the workforce. 

To earn the certification required to run a school, Gabrielle went to Columbia Teachers College. She enlisted Olive Felton, an exceptional teacher, as her partner and educational director. Together they created the Riverdale Play School, later the Riverdale School for Young Children, which was designed around the importance of play in the emotional and intellectual development of children. Its motto was “Happy Days Make Happy Children,” and it was deeply appreciated by parents and children alike for fostering creativity, kindness and empathy.

After retirement in 1975, Gabrielle focused on promoting peace and understanding by helping create a Model U.N. program for local schools. Now in its 35th year, this program brings together public and private school students in Northwest Bronx, New York, to engage in discussions and debates addressing pressing global issues in a format modeled on the U.N. General Assembly. 

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine was an educator, mother and grandmother who profoundly influenced others through her example as a first-generation college graduate and dedicated teacher.

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine, Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell, scholarship fund, Jonathan Koppell

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine and her husband Simon. Photo courtesy of the Sunshine family

Born in New York City in 1910, Elsie was the first child of Rose Pollock and Eugene Kopstein, a shoemaker. This family of immigrants from Sopron, Hungary, none of whom had had access to formal education, lived in northern Manhattan. Setting an example followed by her four siblings, Elsie graduated in 1932 from Hunter College — one of the constituent colleges of the City University of New York — as a science major with high honors. Her two brothers, both World War II veterans, and two sisters, would all subsequently graduate from the City University of New York.

In 1939, Elsie married Simon Sunshine, son of Scheindel Messing and Samuel Sunshine, who immigrated from Poland. Her husband, who had not completed high school, owned and operated Sunshine Jewelers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. Inspired by the path of their mother, three children — Kathleen, Diane Lisa and Eugene — all went on to accomplished careers in higher education. Indeed, both her daughters earned doctorates and contributed through leadership, and their brother served as vice president of two major universities. Their careers clearly reflected their mother’s values and enthusiasm for learning.

Elsie began her own career as an educator when her children were older. She distinguished herself by creating an extraordinary program in special education at John Ericsson Junior High School in Brooklyn, not far from Sunshine Jewelers. Elsie was completely dedicated to her students’ total well-being, even bringing them to her home for further enrichment and attention to address their mental, emotional and physical challenges.

Her retirement was celebrated by an extraordinary, festive acknowledgement of her contributions by colleagues and students. She died in 1986, and her memorial was marked by the involvement of numerous alumni who celebrated her positive impact on their lives.

Elsie was also a gifted pianist who filled the family home with classical music and opera, a passion that her children and six grandchildren share.

Top photos: Elsie Kopstein Sunshine (left, sitting on a car in 1939 in New York) and Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell (pictured in 1920s Berlin) are the grandmothers of Dean Jonathan Koppell of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. They are the namesakes of a scholarship fund Jonathan Koppell and his family established to benefit Watts College students. The fund's creation caps contributions to Watts College during Campaign ASU 2020. Photos courtesy of Sunshine and Koppell families

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