Montrealer is first black valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-year history

Montrealer Nicholas Johnson is the first black student to be named valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-year history.

The operations research and financial engineering grad will participate in the virtual commencement for the Ivy League institution’s class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, alongside Grace Sommers, a physics student who was named the year’s Latin salutatorian. An in-person ceremony will take place in May, 2021.

The Selwyn House alumnus attended Marianopolis College for a year before heading to Princeton, which is in New Jersey.

“It feels empowering,” Johnson told CNN. “Being Princeton’s first black valedictorian holds special significance to me, particularly given Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery. I hope that this achievement motivates and inspires younger black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields.”

Johnson expressed gratitude for the university’s support of his internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the U.K., among others, but was particularly thankful for exchanges with his fellow students.

“My favourite 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 in an announcement sent out by the university.

Johnson pursued certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing. A central focus of his research was sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations due to the growing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

Johnson has interned at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, under deep learning/AI leaders Prof. Yoshua Bengio and Dr. Jason Jo. He has also worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

Johnson’s senior thesis looked at developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to design a preventative health intervention to help curb obesity in Canada. This work also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He is a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018. He is a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Centre and editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy.

Of the professors who influenced Johnson are William Massey, in operations research and financial engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African-American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences.

“Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year writing seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

Johnson is the recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen at the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient with Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award.

He will spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D.E. Shaw Group, before beginning a PH.D in operations research at the Massacheusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.


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