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Student Filmmaker Finds Calling at AU

By Elizabeth Neville

Matt Cipollone and students of Next One Up

Matt Cipollone, SOC/MFA '18, and Next One Up students

How does a film student take a homework assignment and turn it into a professional documentary?
Matt Cipollone, SOC/MFA ’18, did just that while a student in AU’s School of Communication Film and Electronic Media program.  

Cipollone came to AU because, as he said, “I was looking for a media program that allows me to focus on social issues. My goal is to create compelling documentary media for nonprofits that work on the issues I care about. With the help of my professors, I’ve been able to start that trajectory while I’m a student and not wait until after graduation.” 

Inspired by a homework assignment in associate professor Maggie Stogner’s class, Cipollone decided to tell a story about Baltimore, his home city. He focused his attention on the Next One Up Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of young men in Baltimore City by supporting and advancing their academic, athletic, and social development. 

Matt Cipollone filming a Next One Up program
One of Next One Up's SAT prep classes.

Over the course of summer 2016, Cipollone used the five-minute homework assignment as inspiration for a fuller documentary, traveling between DC and Baltimore to film with Next One Up students. The organization provides students with mentoring, academic support, and athletic training. Each summer, Next One Up takes their students to a college in New York for a one-week athletic camp. The students see what life after high school could look like—and see a world very different from inner city Baltimore.

That same summer, Cipollone served as a Center for Media and Social Impact fellow, partnering with community members to create digital stories about issues affecting their communities in the Community Voice Project. There, he came to understand the power of a letter as the driving force and structure for narrative projects. After hearing one Next One Up student talk about Baltimore like a friend or family member, Cipollone suggested that the student write a letter to Baltimore and the focus of the film, Dear Baltimore, was born.  

Student reading letter in front of a camera
The student, John, reading his letter to Baltimore during filming.

When Cipollone returned to campus this past fall, he dove into finishing the documentary – calling on his AU professors for their help in tying all the pieces together. The finished project, Dear Baltimore, weaves a student’s letter to his home city with the story of how students’ lives are impacted by the work of the nonprofit. 

Cipollone premiered Dear Baltimore on October 27 at the historic Senator Theater in Baltimore, Maryland during an event for the Next One Up Foundation. (The trailer for Dear Baltimore can be viewed here.

Just one week before that premiere, Cipollone was a featured speaker at AU’s annual President’s Circle Dinner which highlights the role of philanthropy in the university’s success. This year’s program included stories of the incredible transformation that AU has undergone during President Neil Kerwin’s leadership. 

Before an audience of AU supporters, Cipollone spoke about his experience at AU and how philanthropy has made his success possible. He spoke of seeing his own work in the Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater, “during my first year we screened one of our assignments in the beautiful Forman Theater for class. It was the first time I saw work of mine in such an amazing setting, and it had a major impact on me. I hadn’t expected that opportunity as a student.”

Following the success of Dear Baltimore, Cipollone is looking ahead to the future and finishing his MFA at AU. He hopes to continue sharing stories of nonprofits’ work, “In 2017, my goal is to build upon what I learned making this documentary and look outward to identify new organizations I can work with.” 


AU Alumna Supports Aspiring Filmmakers

By Elizabeth Neville

John Douglass and Sophia Neel Kountz

John Douglass and Sophia Neel Kountz, SOC/MA '85.

A student dreams of becoming an astronaut. A man’s quest to conserve land in the foothills of the Appalachians. Two sisters’ dreams of baking and the last frontier. A glimpse into contemporary life in Chinatown, DC. A mother’s struggle to bring attention to her daughter’s disappearance. Three people’s courage to do what is right in the most difficult times.

Each of these stories was told thanks to the vision and support of an AU alumna who was grateful for her own experience in documentary filmmaking while at AU. She believes that the Film and Media Arts students have important stories to share with the world. With her help, these graduate students went on to screen their documentary films at festivals around the world, from Cannes to Santa Fe, and receive countless awards, including Student Academy Awards, one of the highest honors a student can achieve.

Sophia Neel Kountz, SOC/MA ’85, studied photography in high school, and had always enjoyed journalism more than fiction. Her interest in photography and journalism eventually led her to documentary filmmaking, and American University’s Film and Media Arts program. As she embarked on her master’s degree in the fall of 1983, Kountz met Professor John Douglass while taking a course on scriptwriting. When Douglass’ TA unexpectedly quit, he turned to Kountz and asked if she would take the job. She accepted and worked with him until her graduation in 1985. 

Douglass had joined AU in 1978 and led the Film and Media Arts program from 1980 until this spring. He developed a program designed to balance the study of the media with production, and focused on storytelling and skill development.

Over the years, Kountz and Douglass kept in contact, even as Kountz’s career grew and she entered the education field, teaching English as a Second Language courses for over ten years.

In 2004, grateful for the skills and education she received, Kountz met with Douglass and asked how she could help support graduate students in Film and Media Arts program. Douglass explained that students often had trouble covering the costs of the final post-production work on their thesis projects and needed funds for film festival and competition entry fees.

Kountz was inspired by their conversation and the opportunity to help students in their final push towards graduation and completion of their films. Kountz thought, “it’s about supporting the next generation of documentary filmmakers.” She was eager to help them share their films with the public.

Through the Neel Family Foundation, Kountz endowed the Neel Foundation Fund in Honor of John Douglass. She believes that anyone can start giving modestly and then consider what they want their legacy to be. The fund that now bears John Douglass’ name recognizes the impact he has made on AU’s film community over the past 30 years. 

Douglass said, “My career at AU has always been about enhancing the quality of student productions and helping students get into the industry. Our students tell meaningful stories that really do matter. The impact of this fund is not just on the students, it’s on the audiences.”

If you would like to support emerging documentary filmmakers in AU’s Film and Media Arts program in the School of Communication, you can make a gift to AU’s Neel Foundation Fund in Honor of John Douglass by contacting Nada Maalouf at or 202-885-2652.



Learn more about the individual documentaries supported by the Neel Foundation Fund in Honor of John Douglass:

Student Life

Students Celebrate the Season by Giving Thanks

By Elizabeth Neville

Students at thanksGIVING 2015.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, AU students gathered to express their gratitude — by celebrating “thanksGIVING” on campus. This festive annual event hosted by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations on November 20 brings students together to celebrate the impact of philanthropy on AU’s campus. The effect of this generosity is far reaching as 80% incoming freshmen receive some form of financial aid and need-based aid to AU students has more than doubled in the past six years.  

The Students Today, Alumni Tomorrow (STAT) committee is dedicated to educating students about philanthropy and annual giving. Alumni and supporters give to every facet of AU and their gifts shape the student experience in innumerable ways. Philanthropy enhances the academic experience by providing for extra programs and services, above and beyond what tuition covers. 

Fueled by coffee, cocoa, and snacks, students learned about donors who support AU and wrote postcards to thank them. Over 160 postcards were written, with more on the way from students who were unable to attend. The STAT committee helped lead the way during thanksGIVING but each student chose to express their appreciation in their own unique way.

“Thanks so much for your help! Donating to financial aid is literally THE coolest thing I’ve ever heard of. Keep rocking on and have a happy Thanksgiving!” 
 Dylan ’15

 “Thank you for your generosity in supporting the AU Fund for Excellence. Your generous donation is making a difference in the lives of all students and myself every day. Thank you for making our education possible!” 
— Sarah ’18 

Students, including Dylan and Sarah, wrote to donors both big and small. Recipients included first-time AU donors, many of whom are recent graduates; donors who gave to the AU Fund for Excellence, which sustains the annual operating budget; and members of the Helen Palmer Kettler Society, individuals who have chosen to include AU in their estate plans. Students who received donor-funded scholarships were also able to write to the individuals who established those funds. 

For photo highlights from the 2015 thanksGIVING event, be sure to check out the Flickr album. You can also support AU with a gift today.