Nicholas Johnson Named Valedictorian At Princeton University

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Written by Ann Brown
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Nicholas Johnson has been named valedictorian at Princeton University, becoming the school’s first Black valedictorian in its 274-year history. Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

Nicholas Johnson, a Canadian, has been named valedictorian for Princeton University’s  2020 class, making him the first Black student to be bestowed with the honor in the Ivy League school’s 274-year history.

“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 (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.”

The Princeton & Slavery Project revealed that nine previous Princeton University presidents owned slaves, ABC News reported.

Many went to Twitter to express pride in Johnson. As one person tweeted: “@Princeton’s Class of 2020 valedictorian, #NicholasJohnson, will be remembered not only bc he is #AfricanAmerican, but bc he has the courage to remind us how Princeton U’s wealth was built on USA enslavement of Africans & his online speech during #COVID19 will endure.”

Princeton plans to hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on May 31.

“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 is from Montreal. An operations research and financial engineering concentrator, he plans to spend the summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group. He plans to start his Ph.D studies in operations research in the fall of 2020 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Black Enterprise reported.

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

Johnson has had an outstanding college career. During his junior year, he conducted an independent research project called “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” supervised by Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering. For the project, Johnson developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives, Princeton reported. He presented the project at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

For his senior thesis, Johnson focused on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada, Princeton reported. The title of his thesis is, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic.”

Johnson acknowledged several influential professors that encouraged him including William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies.

“Prof. 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. Prof. 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.”

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

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As a senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

His academic honors are plenty. Johnson won the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, was a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award. 

He was elected to academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.