28 Days of Black Excellence: Nathaniel Downing
Nathaniel Downing received his Master of Education focusing on instructional leadership from the UIC College of Education in 2014 after earning his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2011. While attending UIC as an undergraduate, he played with the UIC Flames Men’s Soccer Team and served as team captain in 2010. At UIC, Downing worked in the athlete department as an athletic development assistant and assistant director of ticket sales. He rose to become director of ticket sales and operations. He also served in the UIC College of Pharmacy as associate director of development and was promoted to director of development. Currently, Downing, who also serves as a youth soccer coach, is major gifts officer for the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Greetings UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s “28 days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And I’m excited to celebrate the history of Black Excellence at UIC with some powerful, inspiring and, informative conversations with some of our UIC alumni and we’ve got some past faculty and past staff as part of the series as well. And each day we have a new guest and I am honored to introduce Nate Downing, who is a double alum, graduated in 2011 from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and got his master’s degree in the College of Education which of course, is my home space in 2015. And he has continued to be involved with UIC. I just want to hand the microphone over to him. Nate, tell us a little bit about who you are, where you come from, and what you’ve been up to since your time at UIC?
Nathaniel Downing 1:33
Yeah, thank you so much for that great introduction. I’m really happy to be a part of this. I am what I say, ‘I bleed UIC blood.’ I am so thankful for the experience I had at UIC. My experience was different than others I would say. I started in 2006. I was a student-athlete. So I did play, I played soccer for the university along with getting degrees. That adds extra layers to everything. As I am always telling people I had a full-time job while in school. I worked while in school, was a student-athlete, and ended up getting two degrees. I always also joke that if someone would have told me when I stepped on the campus, I would have got two degrees, I would have laughed at them. So, I did have an excellent experience. I’m currently working for the Illinois Institute of Technology just down the road in the Brownsville area. I am a director of major gifts for the institution. I basically work across all parties on campus, all degrees, all alumni. It’s been a great wealth of experience. But I would not have had that experience without UIC before. I just entered that job in March of last year. But prior to that, after getting two degrees from the University of Illinois, Chicago, I was in tickets for the athletic department first. So that’s how I funded my grad degree. So I worked for the department, actually within the ticket department, then I moved forward from there into the director of tickets.
At that time, I had finished my degree and I was running the ticket department. That gave me so many skills for what I have to do today, multitasking and accounting. You know, it was really everything for the base of jumping off my career. I had found out I was having my first son in about 2016 and I knew I needed to make a change. I had always wanted to be in development. And everyone’s like, what’s development? Well, you know, development helps every university run. And I was luckily involved as a student worker in development that moved me. I always knew I wanted to, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. As a person of color, especially in those spaces, we are far and few in between. There are not many of us that, you know, not to mention that no one knows about it. It also isn’t something that you get a degree in. So as a LAS grad, I had all the skills to do this, and I was lucky enough that an advisor pushed me and said, ‘you’d be great at this, this is your personality.’ Everyone thinks that you go in development and you wine and dine. And it’s not. It’s not all that, it’s lots of phone calls, lots of connecting people to the university in different ways, and then hopefully getting that ultimate treasure. But a lot of it is what I do. Now I’m volunteering for my alma mater because I care a lot about it. And I like mentoring and things like that. But that kind of shaped me changing my role into development from tickets. It was the best decision of my life. I feel blessed every day. I get to wake up and work with interesting individuals. I currently just bought a home with my family, my wife, and two kids in Orland Park. And you know, we’ve been thriving in the pandemic. It was tough too, transitioning during a pandemic of home and you know, building your family and then also moving jobs. It’s always hard. But to me, it was something I needed to do. And it was important and now I get to wake up and work with interesting individuals every day and hopefully it also allows me to give back to the institution. I did leave one thing out. I moved from the athletic department to the College of Pharmacy, and I worked there for almost five years in development. That was my opportunity. And yeah, but I will always be connected with the university.
Aisha El-Amin 6:51
Oh, I love it. I love it. So you’re in Orland Park. You’re my neighbor. I’m not far from you and Flossmoor so. [laughing] So are you originally from Chicago? Nate?
Nathaniel Downing 7:03
Oh, no, I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. And then when I was 10 years old, I moved to Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. But I will say I spent most of my time in Chicago. I came for a visit. I was recruited to play soccer, as I said earlier. I remember coming over the hill in Indiana and being like, ‘oh yeah this is this my city. I’m ready. Let’s let’s roll.’ I was from a smaller town. But I call myself a Chicagoan at this point.
Aisha El-Amin 7:33
Hey, we’ll take you [laughter] when you said that you’re still connected. Can you talk about your connection and you know that you have to UIC right now?
Nathaniel Downing 7:44
Yeah, you know. Again, I had that different experience of being a double degree, a student-athlete, and then working. My first 10 years of work was with UIC in two different fields. So to me, you know. My wife went to UIC as well. Um, you know, I met my wife there.
Aisha El-Amin 8:06
Oh, wow, we got to get that story separately. We have to get the love story.
Nathaniel Downing 8:13
You know, yeah, so she was a dancer at UIC. And then we worked together, after, in the ticket department too. But that’s for another day. But that’s why it’s so important to me, because it’s a big piece of my life, of my young life, so far. But I’m still connected in various ways. I volunteer and help the UIC men’s soccer program, we donate to athletics and some other entities. So that’s where I guess where some of our treasure goes but even I’m a part of the group Umoja which is just now forming, which is a Black alumni affinity group. And I was asked by Christina Roberts to join that group and I’m just getting started so I don’t have too much to say on that front. But I am super happy about that. And I’ve mentored students in the past, too. My goal is to let everyone know how important philanthropy is for all communities and people but also what it means to the university. It’s a lifeline. It creates, a lot of people don’t know, but it creates a lot of jobs. It also keeps jobs for us. But I am very plugged into UIC. I go back to sporting events. To me. I’m what I would like to create is what other universities have like let’s say Michigan State or U of I even and have that pride of our school you know. I still wear My UIC.
Aisha El-Amin 10:02
Oh, let’s see. Let’s see. [Laughter]
Nathaniel Downing 10:06
This is my College of Pharmacy jacket. I have UIC hats, you know, all around, you know, we got soccer balls. So, I’m, UIC through and through. [Laughter]
Aisha El-Amin 10:16
[Laughter] Through and through. When you look back at that time, tell us a fond memory that you have.
Nathaniel Downing 10:24
Yeah. Um, so I thought about this earlier. I have two very fond memories. One, it’s so near and dear to my heart. Having athletics, that was me, that made me. I thought I was going to be a pro soccer player, this and that. But there was this other moment that changed my trajectory forever. I realized, okay, you know that story, not everyone can be…only 1% turn pro. Then I fell in love with a class, in which I ended up getting my degree. It was an intro to sociology. You know, it’s that freshman year when you’re going through all these classes, and, you know, I’ll be very honest. You know, I was there for soccer first, school second. That changed eventually. But my parents always used that and said, ‘if you want to do your sports, your grades come first.’ But there was this moment, a defining moment for me when I was sitting in the sociology class and the light bulb clicked, I guess, is the best way to put it. And I just was enthralled with the material. And we were learning about how the mind works and how everyone’s different. And there was another class. Psychology as well. In these, it was so interesting. It was the first time I was picking up the book. And it wasn’t homework or anything like that. It was love.
So, um, that was a defining moment for me in my UIC career that I remember calling my parents and saying, ‘I’m gonna, I’m gonna major in sociology’, I remember my dad saying, ‘What’s that? And what kind of job can you get afterward.’ So, um, but you know, I said, ‘I’ll figure that out. This is something that I love.’ And I went with passion. And I was passionate. And that was the same way I related with my athletics. I was passionate, it was something that drove me. That sociology helps me every day, in my, in my everyday life, that’s for sure. And especially, it was the aspect of, you know, how everyone thinks in different ways. Understanding that you know what, someone may be having a bad day. We need to understand when you’re calling someone on that phone that you don’t know what they went through, did they eat a meal that day? And it also really helped me understand, as I went further on into the degree, the disparities we have in race and gender. It really opened up my eyes to think outside of the box, which was a really rewarding experience from it.
Aisha El-Amin 13:18
Thank you for sharing this story with us. With any journey, there are challenges. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you faced and how you overcame them? And offer some words of advice for folks, folks that are currently on that path?
Nathaniel Downing 13:33
Yeah, you know, for me, it was time. The challenge was time, I had to really manage my time and understand … it’s hard as an 18, 19, 20 year old to decipher what’s important and what isn’t? How do we maneuver around those things, but time was the most challenging piece for me. And one thing I learned is you don’t get time back. Maximizing my time, being organized. To this day, I have my punch list and you know, I’m able to decipher what I need to do and work on. It’s a life skill, really. Um, so managing my time was the most important I’d say the second one was the community. You’re stepping on a campus you don’t know anyone. Luckily, I had a built-in community in my athletics, but to try to expand outside of that, which I did. But going back to a time I didn’t have much time to do that. But you know, that community can, it can be scary sometimes. You know, I’m coming from a smaller town, not all places like Chicago. But what I did find was opportunity and opportunity was key for me. What I mean by opportunity is, which I’ll go into a little bit on my advice piece, it gave me the opportunity to build a network, finding out who that inner circle of, you know, you got to be wise. Who you choose as your friends, you know, who are your real friends and things like that. But the other thing was finding a mentor that could help me navigate these spaces. So it’s about trust, I had to find someone that I could trust and confide in and I did have an advisor, that I could do that with. Because we’re never going to be able to do this on our own.
Um, my advice for others going through that would be always put your best foot forward, control what you can control, the rest will work out. Um, and then my other piece, two pieces of that is, you know, being kind and being happy. You know, there’s not enough kindness in the world, but I try to look at things in a positive light. In the work that I do every day, I get mostly no’s. But for that one, yes, I celebrate that. I don’t worry about the other end of it. And then the last, the last piece for me is your network. Networks are everything. Most of the time, anytime you get a job, it’s through your network. The people that you surround yourself with are probably a better shining example of yourself than even you, right? Because those are the people that drive you. Those are the people that keep your checks and balances. And I’m not talking about comparing. I’m more saying that making sure that they’re along for the ride with you and your goals are the same. I was very fortunate to have a very close group of friends, we were like-minded, you know, we wanted to be successful, whatever that success may be to you. And then also I was fortunate because we could keep ourselves in check. I wasn’t worried about them. If they were saying something to me it was because, ‘Nate you need to get checked, right?’ So keeping those strong connections around, some of those people were in my wedding and will be my best friends for the rest of my life. But your network, the people you surround yourself with are super important. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Aisha El-Amin 13:49
Well, thank you for your sage advice. And thank you for your excellence and the continued commitment and connection to UIC. And last but certainly not least, just thank you for being part of this series of Black excellence at UIC.
Nathaniel Downing 17:52
Of course. Thank you.
Tariq El-Amin 17:55
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.