Princeton Names Its First African American Valedictorian After 274 Years

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Nicholas Johnson is from Montréal Canada and according to a news release from the University, he was named Princeton’s valedictorian. CNN reports that Johnson will have majored in operations research and financial engineering. He is graduating this year.

“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 fields.”

Princeton’s news release quotes the graduate as saying he has enjoyed spending time 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 had been encouraged to participate in a number of programs while he was at Princeton, including integration internships and cultural immersion trips. He also was a member of the Engineers without Borders chapter at the school and worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

An algorithm to design a preventative health intervention that is community-based became Johnson’s senior thesis. He did it to have an impact on the obesity epidemic in Canada. His summer will be spent interning at the global investment firm DE Shaw group and then he will begin a PhD program in operations research, doing so at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It is disappointing to Princeton’s valedictorian that the coronavirus pandemic has made the gathering for a graduation ceremony impossible. There will be a virtual ceremony held by the school on May 31.

“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,” Johnson told CNN.

Johnson realizes that Princeton had ties to slavery. When he spoke with ABC News, he was “really surprised” that he was the valedictorian.

“Don’t let yourself be intimidated by individuals who don’t look like you and might be dominating the space you are trying to enter,” Johnson said.

This just shows you what is possible and Johnson has certainly paved the way for other African-Americans that are attending Princeton.

The history of Princeton is well known. It was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey. The first nine presidents of the University were all slave owners and there were enslaved people kept at the University President’s house, perhaps until 1822 or later.

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