Drew Nate |

Earlier this year, Rio Hondo College Counselor and Professor Julius B. Thomas was honored as the 2021 Higher Educator of the Year by the National Education Association (NEA), America’s largest union of educators, and the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), an organization of NEA higher education members. 

Thomas was subsequently awarded the 2021 James Davenport Memorial Award from NCHE and made history in the process.

His first love was music 

Thomas, who resides in Riverside , originally grew up on the Northside of Chicago, Illinois, with a mother who worked in the education system and whose father worked for the State of Illinois. During a recent interview with the IE Voice/Black Voice News, Thomas talked about growing up around the classroom with his mother where he learned how to conduct a class and gained valuable experience that helps him today. 

Education wasn’t something that he always wanted to do though, as his first love and interest was music. Early in his childhood, Thomas played the drums, sang and played in bands where he traveled throughout the United States. Music was his first love, but education was his calling. 

As an educator, he has been a tenured professor at Rio Hondo College in Whittier since 2000, working as a counselor to thousands of students. He was awarded the RCCD Alumnus of the Year award in 2017 for his work in  education.

Coming to California

Thomas came to California as a young man, who wanted to better himself and get a higher education. After serving in the U.S. Air Force for one tour, he played college men’s basketball for both RCC and UCR and excelled in both his academics and athletics and used his skills as a pipeline to his education. 

At UCR he was team captain, averaging double digits scoring all while maintaining his academics. Basketball was the “extra gravy” he described, to his academics, which always came first.

Making history

This year, Thomas became the first African-American man to receive both the Higher Educator of the Year award and the Davenport Award, as well as the first Californian to receive the Higher Educator of the Year Award. 

The Higher Educator of the Year Award recognizes the postsecondary education professional who “continually provides outstanding student service, excellence in teaching and/or working with students, and state/local labor-based advocacy.” 

When Thomas was asked  what this award meant to him as a resident of the Inland Empire he said, “It means everything to me. It’s the epitome of my career.” He went on to say, “It’s a huge honor and it also speaks to the diligence in which I worked in my career.”

A history of service and advocacy

Thomas has served on many academic boards. He currently serves as a National Education Association Board Member, Community College Association Board Member, Rio Hondo Faculty Association Executive Board Member, and community volunteer coordinator working with a number of state and non-profit agencies. 

Thomas confided, “Everything I’ve done thus far has been about mentoring, helping, establishing and helping people get to their utopia. The awards are huge but we still have work to do.”

The work isn’t done for Thomas, a professor, but also an advocate, he’s had opportunities to build coalitions with community and social justice organizations working on Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous rights, among other issues. He discussed how he continues to fight for equality in the classroom for all students and looks to continue to mentor students.

Regarding mentoring, Thomas shared, “It’s important because it was done for me, from my parents, to the military, to community college.” Thomas said he loves mentoring young men and women.

With community colleges being the largest system of higher education in the U.S. and California having approximately 2.4 million students across more than 100 campuses, Thomas looks to continue working to make change.

Drew Nate, a resident of Corona, California, reports for Black Voice News and the IE Voice where he focuses on stories within the Inland Empire and throughout California. An advocate for equity and social justice, he emphasizes civil rights for African Americans. Drew previously served as a staff reporter for The Criterion, a student-run newspaper publication at La Sierra University where he received his bachelor’s degree in Communications. Drew’s areas of interest include international climate change, fashion, and criminal justice reform. Contact Drew with tips, comments, and/or concerns at drew@blackvoicenews.com.