WASHINGTON― Rio Hondo College Counselor/Professor Julius B. Thomas was honored today as the national 2021 Higher Educator of the Year by the National Education Association, America’s largest union of educators, and the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), an organization of NEA higher education members. Thomas, also the recipient of the 2021 James Davenport Memorial Award from NCHE, delivered remarks to the nearly 8,000 delegates attending the 100th NEA Representative Assembly, the nation’s largest gathering of educators and the world’s largest democratic deliberative body.
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.” Thomas, a resident of Riverside, CA, has been a tenured professor at Rio Hondo College in Whittier since 2000, working as a counselor to thousands of students. Professor Thomas 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. In these roles he has facilitated the development of committees and lobbied to address education policy statewide and nationally.
In his higher education advocacy, Thomas has worked with members of Congress, as well as state senators and assemblymen. Professor Thomas has also testified before various statewide committees on the importance of public education and has assisted in the writing of state and federal legislation. He is 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.
Remarks as prepared for delivery
2021 NEA/NCHE Higher Educator of the Year Julius B. Thomas
Hello NEA educators!
It is humbling to receive any award for the work that we do to earn a living, to fulfill a passion, to benefit each individual we educate in society as a whole. Those are true rewards in and of themselves. To receive two awards at this time is still mystifying to me…it is an experience about which I never dared to dream. I thank the members of NEA and NEA President Becky Pringle, along with the members of the National Counsel for Higher Education and NCHE President, DeWayne Sheaffer. DeWayne’s leadership played a huge role in creating the NEA Higher Educator of the Year in 2018.
The award doesn’t simply recognize the contributions being made by those of us working in higher education. It gives our profession equal standing and recognition within the NEA, alongside the NEA’s ESP of the Year, and the nationally recognized Teacher of the Year.
This is truly significant, and I am proud to represent my colleagues working on community college, and university campuses. What an amazing collaboration between NCHE, NEA, and The Foundation. I am also the very proud recipient of NCHE’s own award—the Davenport.
My journey into higher education began within the walls of a community college. Today, as a counselor professor on the campus of California’s Rio Hondo Community College, I have the privilege and opportunity to give back to the very system that gave so much to me. Every day, I work to show every student the same dedication, perseverance, and ambition that I witnessed from educators during my community college experience.
Since there is nothing that can grasp a student’s attention like having the opportunity to learn from an education who face and experiences mirror their own, I am also devoted to mentoring students who look like me—students who are Black and male. Unfortunately, there are few Black male educators in higher ed. That is particularly true in the California Community College System. With so many racial and social injustices affecting our Black, Brown and Indigenous students, I know that my presence, and the recruitment and retention of other Black male educators is more important than ever before. That is why I never miss an opportunity to talk to my students about whether education may be their calling.
I am so proud to be part of the California Community College System. Many of our students have experienced incarceration, foster care, and other forms of trauma. Many come from marginalized neighborhoods. Many are first-generation college students who never graduated high school—something that does not prevent attendance at a California community college.
Community colleges are a final, and critical step on many students’ education journey. Our work unites the academic world with the world of work, which helps to prepare our students to live their dreams and reach their goals. Because of the affect trauma can have on behavior and life outcomes, I am also grateful to contribute to a system that welcomes a rainbow of student experiences, while also helping to close the school-to-prison pipeline. As the 21st century continues to unfold, I believe California community colleges will continue to be a staple in education, employment, and economic growth.
I am humbled and I am grateful to be named the recipient of this important award. I thank Gabriela Michell, my fellow social justice warrior and valued colleague for nominating me. I also thank the NEA/NCHE Awards Committee. My mom was an educator, so I also owe a debt of gratitude for the example she set for me, and I also thank my father, Robert. Finally, I thank my ancestors. Each, in their own individual way, helped me to understand that racial and social justice pave the way to education justice, which every student, every educator, and every community so richly deserves.
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The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers and public and healthcare employees. Learn more at www.nea.org.
- Richard Allen Smith