274-year-old Ivy League University announces first Black graduation star
“It’s very empowering for me to be selected for this honor and it really does mean a lot … I hope that this can serve as an inspiration to younger Black students, particularly those studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)” are words from graduating student Nicholas Johnson. The Canadian is making history as Princeton University’s Class of 2020 valedictorian – history because the 274-year-old Ivy League institution has never had a Black person to serve in such a role. History maker Nicholas Johnson with: (left to right) his mother, Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson; sister Anastasia Johnson; and father, Dr. Dexter Johnson
Johnson, now 22 years old, is tickled by the honor of topping the graduating class of 1,300 at a university that is “very much a leader among its peers, and particularly in light of its historic ties to slavery.”
With a solid focus in financial engineering and operations research, the brilliant student hails from Montreal and already has an impressive resume which now includes being the first Black valedictorian of this impressive New Jersey school. He’s worked as a software engineer at Google, did international studies at Oxford University in England, and is getting ready for a Ph.D. program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“I was first named valedictorian in late April, but I was only recently notified that I am in fact the first Black valedictorian in the University’s history. And that was really surprising,” he noted in a Canadian television appearance.
The Ivy Leaguer also gave credit to his family and the incredible amount of support he received along his journey of academic excellence. His father, Dr. Dexter Johnson, is a Harvard-trained doctor and an oral and maxillofacial surgeon originally from the Bahamas and currently has a medical practice in Ottawa, Canada. His mother, Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson, a medical practitioner of Jamaican descent, is an assistant professor of family medicine and director of a secondary care division. His older sister, Anastacia, is currently completing her Master of Fine Arts at NYU and was nominated for four Grammy Awards.
“I am grateful, especially to the Black mentors who have encouraged me to strive for excellence and not to feel out of place in an environment of people who do not look like me,” he shared.
“This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick! Congratulations on becoming valedictorian – and making history. I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you, and I cannot wait to see some of the things you will continue to achieve,” tweeted former First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama graduated Princeton with her bachelor’s in sociology in 1985 before moving on to Harvard Law School, where she earned her JD law degree.
Princeton University was founded in 1746 and has endured much scrutiny around racism in its past, including the fact that the institution’s first seven presidents all owned slaves. Johnson was quick to point out the need for institutions like Princeton to build relationships with diverse communities and bridges of healing and reconciliation. According to a number of published reports, only 9.5 percent of his graduating class is Black.
Reflecting on his time at Princeton, Johnson shares fond memories of college and the time spent with close friends and college associates engaging in stimulating debates and dialogues, often late at night, about beliefs, culture, and the state of the world. “We are always talking about how we can contribute positively to society in our own special way, and the University has encouraged me to explore my interests by supporting my international internships and cultural trips to places like Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom,” he explained.
Johnson continues his journey greatly empowered and is a member of the Princeton Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. His senior year term paper delved into developing algorithms for a community-based health intervention to decrease obesity. This summer he plans to intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group, an investment and technology firm led by American billionaire and hedge fund manager David Shaw.
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders in the State of New Jersey and across the globe, Princeton’s commencement exercise will be virtual on Sunday, May 31. The thrust of his speech will be around “building” with the elements of surprise.
“I am comforted to see how well my friends and classmates have adapted to these challenging times, ensuring that Princeton’s strong community persists virtually despite our physical separation from each other,” he asserts.