Princeton’s first black valedictorian…and he’s half-Jamaican!

22-year-old Nicholas Johnson is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s 247-year history. The celebrations are even louder as he’s of Jamaican heritage, BUZZ fam! (Photo: Lisa Festa, Princeton Center for Career Development)

Nicholas Johnson made history becoming Princeton’s graduating class of 2020 valedictorian – the first black student to achieve the honour in the 247 years since the Ivy League university was founded.

And of course, with anything momentous, Jamaicans have to be involved!

The 22-year-old operations research and financial engineering student, born in Montreal, Canada to a Jamaican mother and Bahamian father, will give his speech during a virtual ceremony on Sunday, May 31. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

Raised by scholars, young Nicholas topped the 1,300-strong graduating class of the world’s number one-ranked tertiary institution and we couldn’t be prouder.

Among his academic honours, Johnson is a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient of the Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award.

The New Jersey-based university further explained that Nicholas was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

According to a statement from Princeton in late April, Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the New York-based hedge fund managers D. E. Shaw Group before beginning his Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in fall 2020.

“Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, he is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing,” the university said.

With all the glory and encouragement, Nicholas says his fondest memories at Princeton were “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.”

Before matriculating to Princeton, Johnson was a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.

Johnson’s research has focused primarily on sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations that must be made given the increasing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

His senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” was purely motivated on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimisation problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.

“In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is 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,” Princeton wrote further.

According to the prestigious university, as a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

“He previously interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head,” the university stated.

Johnson has also interned at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, and he participated in Whitman’s exchange program with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March 2017.