Princeton announces its first ever black valedictorian who is also a STEM student

News > World

   Nathan Redhead | Posted on May 13, 2020

In a historic turn of events, Princeton University in the United States announced its first black valedictorian as Montreal native, Nicholas Johnson. Princeton is currently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the number 1 university in the U.S. 

The announcement was made public on April 27, this year, in a news release  published on the school’s website. Mr. Johnson is the first ever black valedictorian in the 274 years that Princeton has been operating. This marks a particularly significant achievement, given the history that the school has with slavery and students of color.  

According to data found on Princeton’s website, black students made up 9% of the school’s undergraduate student population for the 2019/2020 academic school year.  

Several major news companies and publications have picked up on the story, with names like the New York Times, ABC News, and CNN among the roster—making the headline a multinational topic. Also, given the nature of the achievement, the story is a cultural sensation, earning accolades from Princeton alumna and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who tweeted, “this Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick!” on Monday this week. 

In an article published by the New York Times, Mr. Johnson, 22, mentioned he was “stunned” to find out about his achievement. He also mentioned that “being Princeton’s first black valedictorian is very empowering, especially given its historical ties to the institution of slavery.” However, he noted that the school has since taken the appropriate steps to reconcile its past misgivings.  

During his tenure at Princeton University, Mr. Johnson primarily focused on operations research and financial engineering. He did his senior thesis on developing algorithms to design a community-based preventive health intervention to decrease obesity in Canada.   

To add to his already impressive resume, he spent a summer as an intern at Google, where he worked as a software engineer. His experience also includes working at Oxford University.  

In Princeton University’s news release, he expressed gratitude towards his school for the opportunities its community supported him in, such as international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.   

Above all else, Mr. Johnson noted that he treasures his relationships with his classmates. He stated, “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.”  

Mr. Johnson passionately advocates diversity in STEM, stating that his professor Mr. Massy inspired him to share the sentiment.   

“He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences,” Mr. Johsnon told CBS News.  

Mr. Johnson actively participated in school activities and is a fan of basketball, chess, and most notably, he was President of the Tau Beta Phi Association and Engineers Without Borders.  

Although he was born in Canada, Mr. Johnson shares some Caribbean ties, as his mother, Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson, and father Dr. Dexter Johnson are from Jamaica and the Bahamas, respectively.   

In an interview with the Jamaica Gleaner, Mrs. Johnson stated, “I feel overjoyed for him because I admire his discipline and his commitment towards his study, which he has always exhibited. There is that joy and happiness for him, but at the same time gratitude for all who have contributed in a mentorship role “, and that she was not surprised, as his excellent academic record paved the way for his historical accomplishment.  

According to the news release by Princeton, Mr. Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall this year.  

Princeton will hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, this year. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021. 

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Nathan Redhead
Junior Writer

Nathan is a Grenadian writer and a graduate of the T. A Marryshow Community College in Grenada, where he earned an associate’s degree in sociology and psychology. While obtaining his associate’s degree, he was exposed to the world of poetry and expository writing as a member of the Writer’s Association of Grenada. He’s an avid lover of literature, and as a child, he spent the majority of his free time either watching the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet or trying to dismantle his toys to rebuild them into something that sparked his interest. As a Junior Writer, he hopes to reignite his passion for science and inventing, as well as improve his creative writing ability.

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