The Original Influencer

By Marcia Faye
Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas

Twelve years ago this June, some 200 Illinois Institute of Technology alumni (including the newly formed African American Alumni Association), among them engineers, Fortune 500 leaders, educators, and even a Broadway entertainer, gathered on Mies Campus to honor and welcome back a man who was their guiding career star: Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas. Founder of Illinois Tech’s Early Identification Program for underrepresented minority recruitment, Thomas passed away late last year.

According to documents from Paul V. Galvin Library University Archives and Special Collections, only nine underrepresented minority engineering students were enrolled at Illinois Tech in 1973, the year that Thomas was named assistant director of co-op education. The General Electric Company made a $25,000 grant to the university to begin an underrepresented minority engineering co-op program, which Thomas set in motion. By 1974, 39 underrepresented minority first-year students enrolled at Illinois Tech and 52 underrepresented minority high school seniors entered into the new Early ID Program, with the goal of providing access and support to young aspiring engineers, computer scientists, architects, and medical experts from diverse backgrounds. Because of Thomas’s innovative vision and approach to recruitment, Illinois Tech President Thomas Lyle Martin Jr. promoted him to director of admissions that same year.

Nathaniel “Nate” Thomas
Photo: Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, IIT

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. He retired from the university as assistant vice president of external affairs in 1988.

While Martin could not attend Thomas’s tribute in 2009 for health reasons, he sent a letter acknowledging Thomas’s impact:

“It’s a little simplistic, but the university admissions process is a lot like prospecting for gold, only university ‘gold’ is called ‘intellectual talent,’ and [Illinois Tech] was in competition with all of the best universities in mining the same traditional places for the same limited supply of intellectual talent,” said Martin. “Nate was unique in prospecting for gold in the areas that no one else thought about, and then using tools and techniques uniquely appropriate to those lodes. He was a pioneer and was appropriately nationally recognized as a leader. I am proud to have worked alongside him at [Illinois Tech], but more importantly, in leading the way in developing a new mother lode of intellectual talent for our country.”