Princeton University Names First Black Valedictorian

Nicholas Johnson is Princeton University’s first black valedictorian after more than two centuries. He is majoring in Operations Research and Financial Engineering.

The New Jersey-based Ivy League school will hold its virtual graduation on Sunday, May 31. Johnson will be joined by fellow awardee, class salutatorian Grace Sommers. A delayed actual ceremony for the graduates of Class 2020 will take place in May 2021, according to the school’s statement.

Johnson, who hails from Montreal, is going for his internship at D. E. Shaw Group as a hybrid quantitative research and software developer. He will pursue a Ph.D. in Operations Research at MIT. 

While in Princeton, Johnson engaged in international internships and cultural immersion trips. He was in Hong Kong, Peru, and the United Kingdom. He also worked at Google’s California headquarters as a software engineer in machine learning and became part of Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group.

Johnson also thanks two influential professors who always encouraged him: William Massey, Operations Research and Financial Engineering professor, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African-American Studies.

Johnson applauded Massey’s undying admiration for the area of study, as well as his exceptional support for African-American students in the STEM fields. It was Massey who encouraged Johnson to pursue ambitious research projects and share his work at educational conferences.

According to Johnson, Professor Gutarra introduced him to academic writing and was instrumental in sharpening his skills as an academic writer and communicator.

Princeton said Johnson’s senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focused on “developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventive health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.”

Johnson was actively serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center as well as a residential adviser. He is part of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and was its co-president in 2018. He got elected to Phi Beta Kappa and became the president of the Engineering Honor Society – Tau Beta Pi, in 2019.

Johnson is a basketball aficionado and a Toronto Raptors fan. He also likes to play chess.

Despite his vast academic experience, Johnson recognizes the moments spent with friends and classmates were the most memorable. According to his statement, he and his friends usually had these insightful conversations late at night about cultures and current events, as they would plan on making positive contributions to the university and the world.

“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,” Johnson told The New York Times in an interview.

On being Princeton’s first valedictorian after 274 years, he says, “I hope this achievement serves as [an] inspiration to black students coming up behind me.”

Read Princeton’s official statement here.