After three decades of giving, Ottens Foundation’s final gift to NAU will help fund Native American health efforts

NAU's Native American Cultural Center

For 31 years, the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation has donated more than $13 million to Northern Arizona University, fulfilling its mission of supporting Native American students and providing health services to the greater Native American community of northern Arizona. Before the organization sunsets, the Ottens Foundation is fulfilling its final $3.45 million pledge to NAU to fund projects supporting Native American programs in the College of Health and Human Services.

In the wake of retirement, John and Sophie Ottens traded the muggy summers and harsh winters of New York for the blue skies and red rocks of Sedona. Several years of travels and dabbling in amateur archeology instilled in them a deep love and reverence for Indigenous peoples from throughout the world. Following the Ottenses’ move to Arizona, the couple followed their passions to support student-focused programs with the purpose of providing access to education and health care professions to the Native tribes of the Four Corners region. They began directing their personal charitable giving to NAU in 1990, and in the next 10 years their cumulative support grew to nearly $600,000. They formed the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation to sustain their philanthropy beyond their lifetimes.

The Ottenses’ early support began with student-focused experiences, such as internships for Native American undergraduate students and graduate assistantships for master’s students. They later shifted to programmatic investments, assisting larger numbers of Native American students and tribal partners. One of the first NAU projects John and Sophie Ottens supported was the American Indian Nursing  program, housed at the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance. Established in 1996, it is the only reservation-based entry-level nursing program, which has enabled more than 150 Native American students to become licensed registered nurses serving the needs of Native peoples.

“The program supports our nurses-to-be by providing reservation-based classes, scholarships, lodging and even food vouchers,” said Diana Shenefield, associate clinical professor and interim director of the School of Nursing. “It’s amazing to see the impact the program has on our students and the ripple effect of generosity it creates when the students become nurses and serve their beloved communities.”

Other significant NAU projects funded by the Ottens Foundation include:

  • The Dental Hygiene Program: Sending students to the Hopi and to the Yavapai Apache reservations to complete some of their clinical assignments.  The purpose of the program was to have all the undergraduate dental hygiene students spend time on reservation sites in their dental clinics to experience the culture and learn about the dental issues in the communities.
  • Diabetes Prevention and Management among the Navajo: a collaborative project involving employees of Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, and NAU faculty and students. Their work enhances existing diabetes education, prevention and treatment programs on the Navajo Nation.
  • Educational Psychology Program: With an Ottens Foundation investment, NAU’s Educational Psychology Department in the College of Education helped Native American graduate students earn a master’s degree in School Counseling and work in schools serving Native Americans.
  • Center for Sustainable Environments: Students passionate about environmental issues can explore beyond the classroom through the interdisciplinary programs in CSE, supported by the Ottens Foundation gifts to the Hooper Student Fund. One example of the real-world impact: Native American students conduct research related to traditional Native foods and their roles in disease prevention, with the goal of decreasing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Native American Physical Education Practicum: Ottens Foundation funding mobilizes real-world experience for physical education teacher candidates to learn effective teaching strategies for Native American youth in reservation schools. Since 2017, more than 65 NAU graduates have participated in the practicum.
  • Native American Summer Internships: Elevating opportunities for Native American students, Ottens Foundation funds assist students to apply for national internships and fellowships. Since 2012, 48 students secured various internships and fellowships.

The decision to support NAU’s student-focused programs pushed the Ottenses to seek guidance from someone who understood what the tribal communities needed most. The couple connected with Henry Hooper who served in multiple roles while at NAU including: associate vice president for Academic Affairs, dean of the Graduate College, associate provost for research and graduate studies, professor of physics, and director of science and mathematics.

Since arriving at NAU in 1981, Hooper spent countless hours traveling throughout the Four Corners region. The time and care he invested in developing relationships with Native community members and tribal partners resulted in his understanding of the most challenging issues tribe members faced—a shortage of Native American health care workers, teaching professionals and social workers living and working on the reservations. Consequently, the Ottenses, accompanied by Hooper, made it their mission to focus on assisting Native American students at NAU in their quest of education and health care professionals.

After retiring from NAU in 1999, Hooper became president of the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation. Along with his wife, Jeanne, he moved to Colorado, where he has continued his commitment to empowering Native American scholars through academic, cultural and transitional support programs.

Following the Ottenses’ lifetimes, Hooper has extended their philanthropic vision, including their priority to distribute the Ottens Foundation’s funds for immediate impact. The recent gift of $3.45 million to the NAU Foundation will be used to fund ongoing projects in the College of Health and Human Services well into the future.

The Ottens Foundation’s investments under Hooper’s leadership and the Ottenses’ vision, extend far beyond NAU. The Ottens Foundation has made grants to a variety of other higher education institutions throughout the Four Corners region, spreading the couple’s values for Native American health and wellness through supported and successful alumni, health practitioners, researchers, educators and informed community members.

To learn more about supporting student-focused programs, creating opportunities for Native communities or making a gift to the NAU Foundation, visit foundationnau.org.