January 3, 2018
At his high school in Aurora, Illinois, Kirk Nass loved math, science, and knowing how things worked. When he saw a flyer about majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois, he remembers thinking, “Wow! I can do math, science and chemistry all in one.”
Growing up in a working class family, college was not necessarily in the cards for Nass. Until the moment with the flyer, he had not had any concrete plans for college.
“I knew I liked math and science,” he says. “I just assumed something would happen, but seeing the brochure from the U of I was the first time I realized specifically what I could do.”
The flyer brought him to Illinois, where he became the first in his immediate family to earn a college degree. It was up to Nass to pay for his education, so the co-op program was a real lifeline.
“My parents didn’t know about saving for college, so I worked in high school and I worked in the co-op program [at Borg Warner Corporation] and I got some financial aid. I got a really good education within my means.”
Nass graduated in 1983 without debt.
Working for Borg Warner, a manufacturer of automotive components and parts in Des Plaines, Illinois, Nass researched materials for clutch pads in cars as well as polymer synthesis. Those experiences helped him realize he liked applied research and he needed a doctorate to keep doing what he liked. In graduate school at the University of Washington-Seattle, he focused on polymeric composites.
He then went to Chevron, just outside San Francisco, which had a plastics division at the time. Nass worked with chemists to figure out how to scale up the results they got in the lab. While he enjoyed his graduate education, Nass credits Illinois, and the concepts he learned—mass transfer, heat transfer, fluid flow and a solid grounding in chemistry—with the success and enjoyment of his work.
“I pull out my undergraduate textbooks much more often than my graduate ones,” he says.
In Seattle, Nass met his future husband, attorney Michael Gillespie. They have been together 33 years and married since 2008. They live in San Francisco. Nass has two adult stepchildren and a grandson.
Nass is an advocate for LGBT issues and has been a board member of the Chevron Lesbian and Gay Employee Association, now known as Chevron PRIDE. He helped the company develop official diversity networks and grow PRIDE into an official global organization.
“Working for a supportive company is very important to me. I can focus on my work, knowing that I’m being treated the same as every other employee,” Nass said.
He credits Illinois, and specifically chemical engineering, with where he is today. Nass never imagined he could help others through financial support. When he realized he had the means to create a scholarship, he was thrilled. Nass and Gillespie hope the scholarship will go to a student who identifies as LGBT, but above all the scholarship is awarded based on academic merit.
Nass said he was stunned when he discovered how affordable it is to create a scholarship. “You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a difference. Chevron matches my donations and we chose to fund the scholarship over four years, which works it out to be like making a small monthly car payment. When (ChBE major gift officer) Braden Shain told me how much it cost, I was like, ‘Whoa, that was easy!’”
–Written by Deb Aronson