Engineering graduate is first Black valedictorian at Princeton University

From left: Nicholas Johnson, sister Anastasia, mom, Dr Anita Brown-Johnson and dad, Dr Dexter Johnson.

Nicholas Johnson of Montreal, an engineering graduate of  Princeton, who was born to a Jamaican mother and a Bahamian father, is the first Black student to be named valedictorian in the university’s 274-year history.

Johnson will participate in the virtual commencement for the Ivy League university’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.

“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.”

Nicholas Johnson

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.

His 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.

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.

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.

Among his academic honours, 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.

Johnson 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