Nate Thomas, a Pioneer for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, Passes Away

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By Marcia Faye

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Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas, who established the trailblazing Early Identification Program for minority recruitment at Illinois Institute of Technology, passed away on November 7 at the age of 84. During his 22 years at the university, Thomas held a number of executive positions and was instrumental in helping Illinois Tech expand outreach, recruitment, and campus services to African-American and Hispanic students from Chicago and across the nation.

“My heart goes out to Nate’s family and loved ones during this difficult time,” says Alan W. Cramb, Illinois Tech president. “As we look to hire our new vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we hope to honor Nate’s memory by expanding on his critical work in helping to further ensure a stronger and more inclusive Illinois Tech community for all.”

Thomas came to Illinois Tech in 1965 while still a student at Roosevelt University, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. (Thomas also earned a Ph.D in higher education administration from LaSalle University). In 1973 he was named assistant director of co-op education and focused on recruiting and supporting students from communities underrepresented within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. His efforts resulted in a 433 percent increase in underrepresented students in his first year alone. In 1974 Thomas established the Early ID Program, with the goal of providing access and support to young aspiring engineers, computer scientists, architects, and medical experts from diverse backgrounds. Thanks to his innovative vision and approach to recruitment, he was named director of admission that same year.

After serving as the executive director for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation and the Midwest Programs for Minorities in Engineering from 1977–1980, Thomas returned to Illinois Tech to serve as head of minority affairs, further expanding technical and scientific educational opportunities within African-American communities in Chicago. He retired from the university as assistant vice president of external affairs in 1988.

In June 2009 members of the newly formed Illinois Tech African American Alumni Association (4A)—among them Fortune 500 senior staff engineers, business professionals, attorneys, ministers, teachers, a Broadway entertainer, and a commercial artist—held a weekend tribute to honor Thomas for his influence in their lives. In 2015, 4A leaders established the Nate Thomas Legacy Scholarship fund in recognition of his work and the immeasurable impact that he has had on the university community. Also, in 1983, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering recognized Thomas with the Reginald H. Jones Distinguished Service Award, which “was created to recognize those extraordinary individuals whose efforts and accomplishments have resulted in increased minority participation in the nation’s engineering workforce.”