Nicholas Johnson, a 22-year-old Caribbean student is the undisputed choice speaker to deliver the virtual valedictory address to 2020 Princeton University graduates on May 31.
The first of his race ever to be named to this auspiciously honorary duty at the 274-year-old Ivy League institution, he is the son of two doctors — Bahamas’ Dr. Dexter Johnson and Jamaica’s Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson (an alum of Excelsior High School in Kingston) — and the first Black to deliver the final address to senior graduating students.
Of his unprecedented accomplishment Johnson said: “Being Princeton’s first Black valedictorian holds special significance to me.”
“I think to my parents and my grandparents and all of the many influential Black and African-American individuals I’ve had in my life who have encouraged me to be my best self, be my truest self, not feel obliged to conform to the expectations that the world has of me, and feel a certain confidence in carving my own path.”
“That guidance, those words, have truly pushed me over my time at Princeton,” the distinguished student said.
A resident of Montreal, Canada, Johnson consistently achieved excellence throughout his high school years and by graduation was accepted to eight Ivy League universities.
He chose the New Jersey institution and there he majored in operations research and financial engineering.
At the end of this month along with a bachelors’ degree Johnson will receive certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics and applications of computing.
With regard to the significance of being the first Princeton valedictorian he explained: “It is very empowering to me especially given its historical ties to the institution of slavery.”
Although Johnson’s father contends that 10 or more presidents of Princeton University notoriously owned slaves, the Princeton University’s website reports that nine did and that slaves lived in Presidents House there until 1822.
The portal also noted last year, that the school’s Princeton Theological Seminary pledged 27 million to scholarships and other initiatives as a redress to correct slave transgressions of the past.
Johnson was unaware of the tainted history prior to his admittance however, reportedly recently said “they’ve taken very deliberate steps to reconcile things,”
Currently of the 5,328 undergraduates attending the northeastern learning institution only 419 are Black. That figure represents a mere 7.9 percent of the student population.
Despite the disparity, Johnson excelled and in 2020 is the most distinguished student to graduate.
His instructors were not surprised by his accomplishment.
“He was very, very, outstanding very personable with a wide range of interests,” one of his instructors Professor William A. Massey said.
“He’s somebody interested in channeling his skills to serve humanity.”
Internationally travelled, during youth exchange programs Johnson visited Peru in South America, Hong Kong in Asia, the United Kingdom in Europe and Los Angeles, California.
To his credit his past-times included playing chess, the saxophone, basketball and in high school was voted head prefect at the all-boys school he attended.
When Princeton made the announcement on April 27 via social media cheers reverberated from the United States, Canada, The Bahamas and Jamaica.
Among the cheerleaders, former Princeton alum Michelle Obama and America’s first Black first lady tweeted “this Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick!”
The congratulatory shout-out from the 1985 sociology graduate who advanced her studies at Harvard Law School after graduating from Princeton University, met Barack Obama, one of the world’s influential leaders and the first Black president of the USA.
“Congratulations, on becoming valedictorian – and making history,” Obama added.
“I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you, and I cannot wait to see everything you continue to achieve.’
Her tweet prompted a deluge of similarly positive posts.
California senator Kamala Harris, a former Montreal resident echoed the former first lady’s sentiment saying “Congratulations! keep using your gifts to show the next generation of young Black leaders what’s possible.”
On May 31, Johnson’s words to his colleagues will probably resonate with added significance given the virtual technological replacement caused by social distancing pandemic restrictions.
“I hope this achievement serves as inspiration to Black students coming up behind me,” the first virtual valedictorian from Princeton University said.
Johnson aspires to earning his doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
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