Princeton University Names First Black Valedictorian: 'It Feels Empowering'

Nicholas Johnson will graduate as valedictorian 72 years after the school graduated its first black students

Nicholas Johnson
Nicholas Johnson. Photo: Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development/Princeton University

For the first time in its more than 250-year history, Princeton University is celebrating its first black valedictorian.

Nicholas Johnson is graduating at the top of his class this year with a degree in operations research and financial engineering from the prestigious Ivy League school, the university said in a news release.

Johnson, from Montreal, will spend the summer as an intern at the D.E. Shaw Group before he heads to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall to start his Ph.D. studies in operations research.

"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 (The university’s first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point in their lives).

"I hope that this achievement motivates and inspires younger black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields,” he added.

Though he kept his plate busy at Princeton with internships at Google, Oxford University, and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, Johnson said in the release that his fondest memories will be the time he spent with friends.

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“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,” he said.

Johnson — who served as co-president of Engineers Without Borders — wrote his senior thesis on helping curb obesity in Canada, and also has another ongoing research project in which he’s developing “a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.”

He’s also a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, as well as the editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy, according to the release.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, Princeton had to push its in-person graduation ceremony to May 2021.

Johnson will, however, participate in a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on May 31.

Though the first African American student to study at Princeton was John Chavis in 1792, the first African American graduates did not do so until the late 1940s.

James Everett Ward and Arthur Jewell Wilson Jr., who were both admitted to the Navy’s V-12 Program in 1945, graduated from Princeton in 1948.

The school hired its first black professor, Charles T. Davis, in 1955, and in 1968, Carl A. Fields became the first black person to serve as dean at an Ivy League institution.

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