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Meet the first-ever black valedictorian in Princeton University's 274-year history

The 22-year-old called the honor particularly significant given the school's troubled history with slavery.

Meet the first-ever black valedictorian in Princeton University's 274-year history
Cover Image Source: Princeton University

For the first time in its 274-year history, Princeton University has named a black student as valedictorian. Nicholas Johnson made history by graduating at the top of his class this year with a degree in operations research and financial engineering. The 22-year-old called the honor particularly significant given the school's troubled history with slavery and its struggle in confronting the past in recent years. Speaking to The New York Times, Johnson said he was stunned when the announcement came to learn that he was the first-ever black valedictorian in the university's history.




"Being Princeton’s first black valedictorian is very empowering, especially given its historical ties to the institution of slavery," he said. Johnson added that he felt the university—as a primarily white institution—had "very much been a leader amongst its peer institutions" and "very critical and cognizant about its ties to slavery." (Princeton's first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point in their lives.) "They’ve taken very deliberate steps to reconcile things," he stated. Johnson, who is from Montreal, told CNN that he hopes "this achievement motivates and inspires younger black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields." 




"I've had many critical conversations with classmates on campus about their thoughts on Princeton's legacy and how it affects their daily life as students, and what we can do to create a college environment in which students who look like us can thrive," he said. Given the current global health crisis, Princeton's in-person graduation ceremony has been canceled and the school will instead hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, 2020. There are also plans of having an in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020 next spring, in May 2021.




"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 in the school's news release. He also said he appreciates the encouragement he received at Princeton in developing his academic interests through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.




William A. Massey, a professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton who taught Johnson, stated that it didn't take long to recognize his student's potential. "He was just very, very outstanding, very personable, with a wide range of interests," he said, adding that was a regular at conferences favored by graduate students and faculty. Johnson was selected for a presentation among a field of mostly graduate students, Massey revealed.




Speaking of his student's interest in applying his research to social problems, he said, "He’s somebody interested in channeling his skills to serve humanity." In fact, Johnson wrote his senior thesis on helping curb obesity in Canada and currently has another ongoing research project "in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion." A member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Johnson said he had summer internships at both Google and Oxford University and that he plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall to pursue a doctorate in operations research. 


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