Princeton names first black valedictorian in school’s 274-year history

Nicholas Johnson majored in operations research and financial engineering at the Ivy League School. A virtual commencement is planned for May 31, where Johnson will be honored alongside salutatorian Grace Sommers.

Princeton University has named Nicholas Johnson its first black valedictorian in the school’s 274-year history.

The young Canadian from Montreal majored in operations research and financial engineering at the Ivy League school. He plans to intern as a researcher and software developer at a hedge fund company in New York City after graduation, according to the school.

He is still pursuing certifications in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing, according to the university.

In the fall, he will begin a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a virtual commencement is planned for May 31, where Johnson will be honored alongside salutatorian Grace Sommers, the school announced on its website.

The faculty approved their nominations April 27.

Both will address their peers on graduation day about their studies and unique experiences while at the university.

“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, according to the school.

School’s history of slavery

Johnson told ABC News that he was “really surprised” to learn he had earned the title of valedictorian given the school’s history with slavery.

Founded in 1746, Princeton accepted and enlisted slavery, with its first nine presidents all owning slaves. According to the school’s Princeton & Slavery project, slaves were housed at the university’s President's House until at least 1822.

Princeton, located in New Jersey, is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution.

Academic career

While in school, Johnson traveled to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom as part of other internships and cultural immersions.

His academic career included a stint as a software engineer at Google’s California headquarters, and an internship with Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group.

His upcoming internship is with D. E. Shaw Group, a company known for developing complicated mathematical models and sophisticated computer programs to exploit anomalies in the market.

Johnson’s senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses 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 said on its website.

“This work, supervised by Miklos Racz, assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.”

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