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Princeton University names its first black valedictorian in the school’s 274-year history

A Canadian student from Montreal just made history as the first black valedictorian in the 274-year history of Princeton University. Nicholas Johnson, who is majoring in operations research and financial engineering, earned the top honors at the New Jersey Ivy League school, according to an announcement from the institution.

In an interview with CTV Television Network, Johnson shared his initial reaction to being named the valedictorian.

“I was first named as Princeton’s valedictorian on April 27th, a couple weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week Thursday when they formally notified me that I was in fact the first black valedictorian in the university’s history. And that, that was really, really surprising,” he said.

Johnson and salutatorian Grace Sommers will take part in Princeton University’s virtual commencement on May 31.

In a statement made to CNN, he said that he also feels empowered to be granted such an honor. As a black man, being named valedictorian means a lot to him, given Princeton’s ties to the institution of slavery. He hopes that through this achievement, he can serve as an inspiration to younger black students, especially those in STEM fields.

While he had plenty of good times at school, his favorite are the moments 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 in the school’s news release.

Johnson is also grateful to Princeton University for allowing him to explore his interests and supporting him through overseas internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.

The bright student’s senior thesis focused on creating algorithms to develop a community-based preventative health intervention to lessen the number of obese people in Canada.

He also expresses his gratitude to his professors William Massey and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, who were both influential to his success.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences.

Princeton University

“Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar,” he added. “She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

Johnson served as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center and served as a residential adviser on campus. He’s also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which he served as co-president of in 2018.

As a rising senior, he also worked at Google’s California headquarters as a software engineer in machine learning.

With a stack of achievements and experience on his resume, Johnson is looking forward to doing more this summer. He will undergo an internship as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D.E. Shaw Group.

In the fall, he will be busier than ever as he will start his Ph.D. studies in operations research at MIT.

Although Johnson feels disappointed that he couldn’t celebrate with his classmates in person during this time, he is thankful that the administration will give them a chance to celebrate their achievements in person. The school said that it would hold an in-person ceremony in May 2021.

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

Congratulations, Nicholas Johnson! Watch his interview below with NBC Today:

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