Nicholas Johnson Becomes First Black Valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-Year History

Nicholas Johnson Becomes First Black Valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-Year History

History has been made at one of the most prestigious universities in the world! Nicholas Johnson becomes the very first black valedictorian at Princeton University.

Nicholas Johnson, who is an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020. Princeton University plans to hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, 2020. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

“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 in a written statement.

The 2020 valedictorian says he plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before he starts to begin Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 2020.

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.

Among his other professors, William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, were influential for Johnson.

“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 a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.