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Princeton Names its First Black Valedictorian!

MAY 15, 2020 • 4 min read

Earlier this week Princeton named Nicholas Johnson as their first black valedictorian in the university’s history.

From Montreal Canada, Nicholas expressed his pride in his achievements and gave thanks to those who have helped him achieve this honour.

“I thank my parents and my grandparents, and all of the many influential black and African American individuals I’ve had in my life who’ve encouraged me to be my best self, be my truest self, not feel obliged to conform to the expectations that the world has of me, and feel a certain confidence in carving my own path,” he said. “And that guidance, those words, have truly pushed me over my time at Princeton.”

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(Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development, Princeton University)

Johnson majored in operations research and financial engineering. His senior thesis attempted to develop high-performance, efficient algorithms to model and solve preventative health inefficiencies, with applications to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada. His research and modelling, he said, can also be applied to social distancing and COVID-19. His other projects include an array of subjects associated with statistics and machine learning.

Going into the future, Johnson will intern at hedge fund D.E Shaw and start his PhD at MIT in the fall. Previously he has interned as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters, and at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, adding to his impressive curriculum vitae.

Looking back on his time at Princeton, Johnson appreciates the encouragement he has received in developing his academic interests, as well as the internships opportunities the university has given him. He is also thankful for the friends and memories made while studying at Princeton.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time spent with close friends and classmates engaging in stimulating discussions — often late at night — about our beliefs, the cultures and environments in which we were raised, the state of the world, and how we plan on contributing positively to it in our own unique way.”

Johnson will participate in the virtual commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 at the end of the month.

"The key idea in my speech, or at least what I'm willing to divulge right now, is the notion of building, building structures, building cultures, building communities. Building as a way to serve humanity.”

Princeton alums such as Michelle Obama have congratulated Johnson for his history-making achievement. As noted, the decision is a historic moment in Princeton’s 274 year history, and the university is aware and very transparent about their historical ties to slavery. They recall how the University’s first nine Presidents all owned slaves, many of the early donations that helped build the university were derived from profits of slave labour, and enslaved people lived at the President’s House until at least 1822.

"It feels empowering. Being Princeton's first Black Valedictorian holds special significance to me particularly given Princeton's historical ties to the institution of slavery," Johnson told CNN. "I hope that this achievement motivates and inspires younger black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields."