Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas, Pioneer of Outreach and Inclusivity, to Receive Honorary Doctor of Engineering from Illinois Tech

Serving Illinois Institute of Technology for more than two decades, Nate Thomas vastly increased diversity in STEM education through groundbreaking recruitment and support initiatives


Nate Thomas, Honorary Doctor of Engineering awardee, sits in front of a neutral background.

CHICAGO—May 11, 2024—Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech) will posthumously award an Honorary Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa, to the late Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas, who established the trailblazing Early Identification Program for minority recruitment in 1974. Thomas, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 84, served in a number of executive positions in his 22 years at the university and was instrumental in helping Illinois Tech expand outreach, recruitment, and campus services to African American and Hispanic students from Chicago and across the United States.

Thomas—who first joined Illinois Tech in 1965 while still a student at Roosevelt University, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees—dedicated his career to fostering diversity and inclusion in engineering and science. Named assistant director of co-op education in 1973, Thomas was instrumental in increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students by 433 percent in his first year alone. In 1974 Thomas (who also held a Ph.D. in higher education administration from LaSalle University) 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. He was named director of admission the same year.

“Nate Thomas was a transformative leader at Illinois Tech, and our whole community owes him a profound debt of gratitude,” said Illinois Tech President Raj Echambadi. “Our university was founded on the mission to advance technology and education for all, and Nate’s many contributions were central to turning those words into a reality. His memory continues to inspire us all as we continue that important legacy .”

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. 

In recognition of his efforts, Thomas in 1983 received the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering’s prestigious 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.” 


“Nate Thomas’ work has fundamentally transformed the landscape of engineering education, making it more inclusive and accessible,” said Kevin Cassel, interim dean of Armour College of Engineering. “His pioneering initiatives have helped Illinois Tech broaden access to education, laying the groundwork for a more equitable field.”

Thomas 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 they established the Nate Thomas Legacy Scholarship fund to celebrate his enduring legacy. 

Thomas’ degree will be conferred during Illinois Tech’s 155th Commencement ceremony on May 11, 2024 at Credit Union 1 Arena.

Photo: Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas

Illinois Institute of Technology

Based in the global metropolis of Chicago, Illinois Tech was born to liberate the power of collective difference to advance technology and innovation for all. It is the only tech-focused university in the city, and it stands at the crossroads of exploration and invention, advancing the future of Chicago and the world. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineeringcomputingarchitecturebusinessdesignscience and human sciences, and law. Illinois Tech students are guaranteed access to hands-on experiences, personalized mentorship, and job readiness through the university's one-of-a-kind Elevate program. Its graduates lead the state and much of the nation in economic prosperity. Its faculty and alumni built the Chicago skyline. And every day in the city's living lab, Illinois Tech fuels breakthroughs that change lives. Visit

Armour College of Engineering

Armour College of Engineering has been educating world-class engineers since the university’s founding in 1890. As future engineers who will innovate in the twenty-first century, Armour students learn the principles of the profession and work in an interdisciplinary environment that emphasizes hands-on learning, teamwork, and leadership, all through the lens of our four engineering themes—water, health, energy, and security—that highlight issues vital today and in the future. Armour is home to five departments and nine ABET-accredited undergraduate majors, which provide a wide breadth of exciting programs from which to choose. Illinois Tech alumni have advanced to careers as presidents of companies and professors at major universities—and have become members of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest distinction in the field.

Media contacts

Petra Kelly
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Illinois Institute of Technology
Cell: 773.771.1064 

Kevin Dollear
Communications Manager
Illinois Institute of Technology
Cell: 773.860.5712