Princeton University valedictorian Nicholas Johnson has roots in The Bahamas, Jamaica and Canada, and he said all three nations have been influential in his upbringing and shaped who he is today.
“I by no means would be the same person if I only had roots in Canada for instance, and I’m very proud of my background,” said Johnson.
He is the son of Bahamian father Dr. Dexter G. Johnson and mother Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson who was born in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica.
“I do feel a sense of strong belonging to all three [countries],” Johnson, who was born and raised in Montreal, told The Nassau Guardian.
Princeton’s first black valedictorian’s speech will be part of the Class of 2020’s virtual commencement scheduled for May 31. An in-person ceremony honoring the Class of 2020 is scheduled for May 2021.
The million-dollar question is what Johnson will address in his speech. His hope is that his message is inspiring to his classmates and broad enough to be applicable to them all.
“I hope to be able to motivate my classmates to have the confidence to go out into the world and build, given these very unique world circumstances we’re graduating into.”
Like all students globally, COVID-19 affected Johnson.
“COVID really affected me very strongly. It’s been extremely difficult to finish my undergraduate degree remotely – because learning from home is a very different learning environment, and one that requires a certain amount of time to adapt to.”
The global public health pandemic also disrupted the final weeks of his Princeton experience, which would have seen him celebrate on campus with other members of his class – something he said he looked forward to in culmination of four significant years of their lives.
“Not being able to do that has been very difficult. That being said, I will say I have been very impressed by how the members of the Princeton community have done their best to perpetuate the strong sense of Princeton community through this new virtual environment, despite the effects of COVID-19.”
The university’s first black valedictorian said he hopes his achievement can serve as inspiration to younger students, particularly those students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and students who are black, but also students regardless of their background.
“My advice to them would be find your passion. Do your best to pursue that passion to the greatest of your ability and not let yourself be intimidated by spaces you try to enter that are dominated by people who don’t look like you. I was very fortunate to benefit from mentors who gave me similar advice, and I really took it to heart, and I’m very grateful that so far it has paid off.”
He encourages students to take time to find out what they really care about and are interested in, and then do their best to pursue it.
Being named Princeton’s first black valedictorian, he said, means a lot to him.
“I think it is a very significant event given the university’s history. It goes to show how far we have come since the university founding, and the fact that it has taken 274 years for there to be a black valedictorian.”
The first nine presidents of Princeton were slave owners. Several professors were as well, and slaves were auctioned on Princeton’s property.
By the same token, Johnson, 22, said it also goes to show how much work still needs to be done.
“Ideally we need to strive for a world where achievements of this nature are more normalized – are the norm rather than the exception. Ideally strive for a world where being the first black individual to do anything is not something that makes national news headlines.”
His most cherished memories at the Ivy League university center around time spent with his close friends.
“Many late-night conversations I had in one of the dorm buildings, in one of the classrooms, when we were working late on a project, are really some of the experiences that resulted in the most learning and the most growth. When speaking with some of these individuals about their personal upbringing, their personal world views – why they believe what they believe – and being able to gain that insight, learn from these different perspectives, was really an eye-opening experience and one that I will definitely take with me after I graduate from Princeton.”
He also said he knows he is fortunate to have attended the university because of the incredible resources available to undergraduate students – specifically the undergraduate travel experiences he was able to take advantage of.
“I was able to spend half a summer in Peru [with part of the Engineers Without Borders Peru team to implement a design of a water distribution system], half a summer in the United Kingdom [doing an International Internship Program] and also in Hong Kong [at the Chinese University of Hong Kong], all very influential events. And then also having access to a lot of resources to support my academic work was an invaluable experience.”
The operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) concentrator is equipped to tackle problems from an analytics or big data approach. His course of study at Princeton focused on developing proficiency in statistics, analytics and optimization, created somewhat in response to the increasing role that big data and data-driven systems play in the world today.
He envisions following an entrepreneurial path creating analytics-based companies to tackle problems either in the healthcare sector or the finance sector – the two sectors his prior research to date has focused in.
“I do also hope to play a role in the development of technology policies designed to ensure that the development of new analytics techniques and new algorithmic techniques are done such that they benefit all groups in society equitably, and don’t work to increase existing disparities – those are two of the main goals,” said Johnson.
In the fall, he will pursue a doctorate degree program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in operations research, which he’s excited for as he will get to work with an advisor whose past work aligns with his current interests.
While he was born and raised in Montreal, Johnson, the grandson of George and Mavis Johnson, of Stapledon Gardens, said The Bahamas is dear to his heart. Growing up, he said, he visited two or three times a year on average to visit family.
“Whenever I go to The Bahamas, I really cherish the time I spend with my family members, my grandparents, with my aunts, with my godfather. I love The Bahamas and thank you for helping shape who I am today.”
One of his fondest memories is a trip to Cat Island, specifically Smith’s Bay. Boiled fish and yellow grits comprise his favorite meal.