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After 274 Years, Princeton Has Finally Named Its First Black Valedictorian, Nicholas Johnson

After 274 years, Princeton has finally honored its first Black valedictorian.

Nicholas Johnson, a student from Montreal, Canada, was named Princeton’s valedictorian in a news release from the University. According to CNN, Johnson will have majored in operations research and financial engineering when he graduates 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.”

In Princeton’s news release the graduate is quoted to have 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.”

While at Princeton, Johnson was encouraged to participate in integration internships and cultural immersion trips. He was also a member of the school’s Engineers Without Borders chapter and spent time at Google’s California headquarters, working as a software engineer in machine learning.

Johnson’s senior thesis uses algorithms to design a community-based preventative health intervention to positively impact the obesity epidemic in Canada. He will spend the summer interning at the global investment firm D.E. Shaw Group before he starts a Ph.D. program in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Princeton’s valedictorian is, of course, disappointed that the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for his class to gather for a graduation ceremony, but the school’s virtual ceremony will take place 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.

He says he will address the pandemic in his graduation speech and will speak about his academic success, according to ABC News.

Fully aware of Princeton’s deep ties to slavery, Johnson told ABC News he was “really surprised” to be named 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.

Cheers to Nicholas Johnson for his accomplishments and for paving the way for all the future African American valedictorians.

Princeton was founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, and the university’s first nine presidents all owned slaves. Enslaved people were kept at the university’s President’s House until at least 1822.

Read more about the history of Princeton at their website for the school’s Princeton & Slavery project.

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