Princeton University Names Its 1st Black Valedictorian


Monday, May 11th 2020, 5:35 pm
By: CBS News


Princeton has named its first black valedictorian in the school's history. Nicholas Johnson, whose academic concentration was in operations research and financial engineering, earned top honors at the Ivy League school. 

Johnson and salutatorian Grace Sommers will participate in Princeton's virtual commencement on Sunday, May 31. The school also plans to hold a belated in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020 next spring, in May 2021, Princeton said in a statement.

After graduation, Johnson, who is from Montreal, will intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group. Then he will continue his academic career at MIT, beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research, the statement said.

At Princeton, Johnson participated in several international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, which he said were especially significant. As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google's California headquarters. He also interned at Oxford University's Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group. 

But he said the best part of college was time spent with close friends.

"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 the statement. 

Johnson said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton and named two professors — William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies — as especially influential.

"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," Johnson continued. "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'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," according to Princeton. The work "also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19."

Johnson is a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018. He also served as a writing fellow at Princeton's Writing Center, and served as a residential adviser on campus. 

Johnson's academic honors include being elected to Phi Beta Kappa and to Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

First published on May 11, 2020 / 9:15 AM

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