Nicholas Johnson calls the honor “empowering.”
Princeton University’s Class of 2020 will be a historic one. On April 27, the school named Nicholas Johnson of Montreal its valedictorian. Johnson, a Montreal native, is an operations research and financial engineering concentrator.
“Being Princeton’s first black valedictorian is very empowering,” the 22-year-old said. “Especially given its historical ties to the institution of slavery.”
Johnson plans to intern as a quantitative researcher and software developer this summer. Afterward, he will begin Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston this fall. Johnson’s senior thesis focused on developing algorithms to create a community-based preventative health system to decrease obesity in Canada.
Black students currently make up just 7.9 percent of Princeton’s undergraduate population. Johnson believes the school has “very much been a leader amongst its peer institutions,” adding that Princeton is “very critical and cognizant about its ties to slavery.”
“They’ve taken very deliberate steps to reconcile things,” he said.
As a junior, Johnson conducted an independent research project titled “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets.” For the project, he developed a machine learning system to anonymize datasets more robustly than existing alternatives.
As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer at Google’s headquarters in California. Additionally, he interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group. He served as co-president of Princeton’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders in 2018. Additionally, he served as a writing fellow at the school’s Writing Center and edited Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy.