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

Princeton University has named its first black valedictorian in the school’s nearly 300-year history.

Nicholas Johnson, a Canadian student majoring in operations research and financial engineering, has been named valedictorian of Princeton's Class of 2020, the university said.

"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."

Nicholas Johnson is pictured in a provided photo. (Credit: Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development / Princeton University)

Johnson said he appreciates “the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests,” including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, as well as friendships he made with classmates during his time at the Ivy League school.

“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.

Johnson’s senior thesis focused on developing algorithms to create a community-based, preventative health intervention designed to curb obesity in Canada. His work can also apply to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the university said.

Johnson was a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a service organization that enlists students to help solve real-world problems in developing countries and local communities, and served as its co-president in 2018.

He also worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

The Montreal native will spend the summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group, a global investment and technology development firm.

In the fall, he’ll begin his Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, the university said Johnson is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

With the in-person graduation ceremony cancelled due to the coronavirus, the graduate will participate in Princeton’s virtual commencement on May 31. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

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Princeton University, located in Princeton, New Jersey, was founded in 1746 and is the fourth-oldest college in the United States.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.