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Princeton's first black valedictorian says his 'heart still lies' in Canada


When taking advanced-level courses at Princeton University, Canadian Nicholas Johnson says he was often one of the only black students in the classroom.

It was a strange feeling, Johnson says, one that's familiar to many people of colour working to overcome systemic barriers at elite academic institutions.

The Montreal-raised student says he was fortunate to find mentors who pushed him to pursue his studies in operations research and financial engineering.

As the first black valedictorian in Princeton's 274-year history, Johnson says he hopes he can similarly serve as an example for other students of colour in white-dominated environments.

"I hope this achievement is able to serve as an inspiration," Johnson, 22, said in a phone interview ahead of Sunday's virtual commencement.

"It's a very significant event, particularly given Princeton's historical ties to slavery."

Founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, Princeton's first nine presidents all owned slaves, and enslaved people lived at the President's House until at least 1822, according to the school's Princeton and Slavery Project.

After receiving word that he would be this year's valedictorian, Johnson said school officials pored through the archives to confirm the honour's historical significance.

"They actually only told me while they were interviewing me for a podcast, so they really put me on the spot," Johnson recalled with a laugh.

"After the initial shock, I felt very empowered."

As media outlets covered the milestone earlier this month, former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama was among the well-wishers congratulating Johnson on his accomplishments.

"This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick!" Obama tweeted.

"I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you, and I cannot wait to see everything you continue to achieve."

A graduate of Selwyn House School in Westmount, Que., Johnson has built quite the resume during his time at Princeton.

As he racked up academic accolades, Johnson spent his spare time serving as president of an engineering honour society, volunteering with Engineers Without Borders, editing a journal of writing pedagogy and helping fellow students as residential college adviser.

Beyond the Princeton, N.J., campus, Johnson studied on exchange in Hong Kong and had internships at Oxford University and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms. He also worked as a software engineer at Google's California headquarters.

While his success has taken him across the globe, Johnson says his "heart still lies" in Canada.

That's why he spent his senior thesis developing algorithms to solve an "optimization problem" in Canada's preventative-health interventions aimed at curbing the prevalence of obesity.

He said the project could have interesting applications for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This particular type of health intervention that I was looking at was designed to change behaviours that are socially learned," said Johnson.

"An individual's adherence to social distancing is something that is very much impacted by how much other people that they interact with themselves adhere to social distancing."

Rather than delivering a speech before a sea of students in caps and gowns, Johnson said he's recorded a "condensed" valedictory address that will be shown as part of Princeton's virtual commencement.

While he hopes to reunite with his classmates at a planned in-person commencement next year, Johnson recognizes that an uncertain future awaits many of his fellow graduates.

However, Johnson remains optimistic that this pandemic will pass, and the class of 2020 has an important role to play in fighting it.

"I do think that graduates will come out of this experience on the other side wiser and more resilient and even more committed to playing their part in bettering the world."

Johnson is set to spend his summer interning at the D. E. Shaw Group, a global investment and technology development firm, before embarking on his doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.

After that, Johnson can't predict where his path may lead, but he hopes it eventually brings him back to his home country.

"Over my years studying in the United States thus far, I have gained an even greater appreciation for Canadian society and for the Canadian way of life," he said. 

"I think that is very much a way of life that I would want."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press