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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. 

Student Life

Food and Festivities Set the Table for thanksGIVING

By Mike Rowan

thanksGIVING 2013

As November drew to a close, and our minds turned to turkey, pumpkin pie, and gathering with friends and family, American University students gathered for a mini-holiday of their own, expressing their gratitude for the elements of campus that mean the most to them at thanksGIVING. While fittingly munching on turkey and cranberry sandwiches and trying their hand at Wheel of Fortune-style trivia in the festive atmosphere, they wrote letters to AU donors to articulate how the generosity of others impacts their college experience. Many also put their thanks on display by signing large posters that will be seen by AU alumni and donors around the country.

In total, 150 students wrote 155 letters of gratitude over two days, with more on the way from some who were unable to attend. Some students who stopped by on day one had such a good time that they came back the next day to write more letters, bringing friends along to join in the fun. The event was educational as well—students enjoyed learning how gifts from AU donors impact every facet of their campus experience, evidenced by the popularity of the “Wheel of Giving.”

The appreciation of the students—many of whom are recipients of donor-funded scholarships—will reach several groups of AU supporters. Scholarship recipients wrote to the donors who established their awards, while others wrote to many who contributed to the AU Fund for Excellence, which fuels the annual operating budget; members of the Helen Palmer Ketter Society, who have stated an intention to include AU in their estate plans; and first-time donors to the university, many of whom are recent graduates.

For more thanksGIVING highlights, check out the event’s Flickr album.