Illustration for article titled ‘It Feels Empowering’: Princeton University Names Its First Black Valedictorian
Photo: Nicholas Johnson. Photo by Lisa Festa (Princeton University Center for Career Development)

Well, it only took 274 years for it to happen, but Princeton University recently named its first African American valedictorian. In late April, it was announced that operations research and financial engineering major Nicholas Johnson will be Princeton’s Class of 2020 valedictorian.

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“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 wrote in a statement.

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A little history of Johnson’s work at Princeton provides some insight into how the 20-year-old earned this honor.

From Black Enterprise:

In addition to Johnson serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, he is also editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

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

In addition to all of that, Johnson is “a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in 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,” according to Princeton’s website.

Johnson said he’s proud to be Princeton’s first black valedictorian while acknowledging that the honor comes after a history of institutional racism.

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“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.”

The Canada-born student interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms before attending Princeton and plans to intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D.E. Shaw Group before beginning a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Princeton will have a virtual commencement ceremony for its 2020 class on May 31 and is planning to hold an in-person ceremony in May 2021, according to Black Enterprise.

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

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