Princeton names first black valedictorian in university’s 274-year history

PRINCETON, N.J. — A Canadian student majoring in operations research and financial engineering has been named the first black valedictorian in Princeton University’s 274-year history.

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Nicholas Johnson, of Montreal, was named the Class of 2020′s top student at the Ivy League school, the university announced in an April 27 news release.

“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 (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.”

According to the Princeton & Slavery Project, nine previous Princeton University presidents owned slaves, ABC News reported.

“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 on the Princeton website.

Johnson’s senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focused on developing algorithms to design a community-based preventative health intervention to decrease obesity in Canada, the university said.

Johnson graduated from Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both located in Westmount, Quebec. He served as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center and is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy, the university said. Johnson also is a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

Before his senior year, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

In the fall, Johnson will begin his Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Johnson will be part of another first in the university’s history. On May 31, Johnson will participate in Princeton’s first virtual commencement, according to the news release. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021, the university said.

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