Nicholas Johnson’s name will forever be in the American collegiate history books. The 22-year-old is the first Black Valedictorian in the 274-year history of Princeton University.
The operations research and financial engineering major delivered his speech on Sunday (May 31) during the virtual commencement ceremony. The event began with a written message from Princeton's President Christopher Elsgruber on the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the importance of confronting racism. Johnson provided his pre-recorded address to the class of 2020 from his home in Montreal, Canada.
Like so many other institutions, Princeton had to cancel its in-person graduation and replace it with a virtual experience due to the coronavirus pandemic. Students will have the opportunity to have an in-person ceremony in May 2021, but for now, they’ll have to celebrate online. Separated from his classmates since March, Johnson’s speech evoked sentiments of community, friendship and stacked achievements developed together over the last four years. .
“I believe building is the best way to create and deliver value to the world,” said Johnson. “Building is not restricted to the creation of casual objects. Together, we have built communities, relationships, traditions, innovative algorithms and lasting memories. Building is fundamentally a means to serve humanity.”
Watch Johnson’s motivating speech here:
Being named the first Black Valedictorian holds a special significance for Johnson who is fully aware of the Ivy League institiion’s ties to slavery. In 2017, the school launched the Princeton and Slavery Project, which not ony acknowledged its shocking link to slavery but also provided historical context in the form of documents and articles that verified it’s once racist past and ideoogies. To name Johnson as the Valedictorian for the Class of 2020 in no way erases that past, but it hopefully allows others to know what’s possible in the future.
Quoting former First Lady Michelle Obama in his speech, Johnson passionately inspired his classmates to have both feet rooted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. It’s a poignant sentiment that speaks volumes, especially today, as many young people may feel dismayed as they search for ways to build a better, and brighter future.
Johnson told CNN, "I hope that this achievement motivates and inspires younger Black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields."
The son of Caribbean parents, Johnson’s senior thesis is based on his research on developing algorithms that could one day contribute to easing Canada’s obesity epidemic. Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, Johnson plans to intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group in New York this summer. Then, he’ll transfer his skills and passion for building towards progress into a PhD program in the fall in operations research at M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
Congratulations to Johnson and the other students of Princeton’s class of 2020.
Photo credit: Lisa Festa/Princeton University