Montreal student named first black valedictorian of Princeton

Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator, is the New Jersey Ivy League's 2020 valedictorian, according to an announcement from the school.

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A student from Montreal with an impressive resume has been named the first black valedictorian in Princeton University's 274-year history.

Nicholas Johnson, who studied operations research and financial engineering, is the New Jersey Ivy League school's 2020 valedictorian, according to an announcement from the school.

"I was first named as Princeton's valedictorian on April 27th, a couple weeks ago, but it wasn't until last week Thursday when they formally notified me that I was in fact the first black valedictorian in the university's history. And that, that was really, really surprising," Johnson said in an interview with Canada's CTV Television Network.

Nicholas Johnson.Lisa Festa

"It's very empowering for me to have been selected for this honor. And it really does mean a lot to me, particularly given Princeton's ties to the institution of slavery," Johnson added. "And I hope that this can serve as inspiration to younger black students, particularly those in STEM fields."

Johnson is also pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics and applications of computing, according to the school. During his time at Princeton, he participated in international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

He worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters and interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group.

All the while, he was also a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Centre, editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy, a residential college adviser and president of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

His senior thesis "focuses on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada," according to Princeton. The project has also turned out to have applications in curbing the spread of coronavirus.

After graduation, Johnson plans to intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But first, he will be delivering his valedictorian speech at Princeton's virtual commencement ceremony on May 31.

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

Johnson said his most valued time at Princeton was spent contemplating these ideas with fellow students.

“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 said.