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Canadian makes history as Princeton’s first Black valedictorian

Nicholas Johnson, from Montreal, has been named valedictorian for the class of 2020 at Princeton University.
Nicholas Johnson, from Montreal, has been named valedictorian for the class of 2020 at Princeton University. Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

For the first time in Princeton University’s 274-year history, the school has named a Black valedictorian.

Montreal native Nicholas Johnson will hold this honour on behalf of the outgoing class of 2020, the ivy league institution announced in a recent press release.

Johnson, who majors in operations research and financial engineering says he feels empowered. 

“Being Princeton’s first Black valedictorian holds special significance to me particularly given Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery,” Johnson said in an interview with CNN.

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Princeton’s first nine presidents were all slaveholders, according to the school’s project on examining its past connections to slavery. 

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Johnson also told the New York Times that Princeton as been “very critical and cognizant about its ties to slavery” and a leader among other primarily white institutions in reconciling its past. He told the publication that he’s had many discussions with peers about the school’s history and how to create a better college environment where Black students can thrive. 

“I hope this achievement serves as inspiration to Black students coming up behind me,” he said.

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Post-secondary students facing additional stress during pandemic

He also credits the university for pushing him to pursue interests abroad with internships and cultural immersion trips in Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, said Johnson in the press release. 

Johnson’s senior thesis work looked at developing algorithms to create a community-based preventive health intervention to address obesity in Canada. That research has applications for public health bodies when trying to implement social-distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, the press release states. 

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The student’s favourite memories at Princeton included spending time with close friends and classmates engaging in “stimulating discussions” about their beliefs, cultures and the state of the world, he said in the press release. They also discussed “how we plan on contributing positively to (the world) in our own unique way,” he said. 

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There won’t be a summer vacation for Johnson as he plans to head straight into an internship as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D.E. Shaw Group, an investment management firm. His past internships include working as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters. 

This fall, Johnson will also begin new studies as a PhD student in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Princeton will hold a virtual commencement on May 31 due to COVID-19 and an in-person ceremony for the class of 2020 will be held in May 2021. 

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It’s “disappointing” that his class won’t be able to celebrate together in person, Johnson told CNN. However, he also said he’s pleased another ceremony is scheduled for next year.

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“I have been comforted to see how well my friends and classmates have adapted to these challenging times…and have ensured that Princeton’s strong community persists virtually despite our physical separation from one another,” he said.