Egbert Gaye

While his valedictory message still resonates…

Accolades are still being heaped on Montrealer Nicholas Johnson, who received worldwide recognition after being named Valedictorian of Princeton University Class of 2020, the first Black person to receive the honor.
On Sunday June 27, the 22-year-old was featured among entertainment’s brightest stars receiving the Shine A Light Award at the 2020 BET Awards, staged virtually and carried this year on CBS.
Appearing early in the program, Johnson delivered a powerful message about the historical relevance of his accomplishment pointing to the Ivy League university’s ties with the institution of slavery.
He told the audience that Princeton’s first nine presidents were themselves slave owners as were several of its early professors.
“ I think that given those historical beginnings, and now today has a Black valedictorian goes to show how much progress has occurred. However the fact that it has taken so long also goes to show how much work still needs to be done.”
The BET recognition comes almost a month after he delivered his groundbreaking valedictory address on Sunday, May 31, at the school’s 2020 graduation ceremonies held virtually this year. The live ceremony will be held in 2021.
Johnson, a graduate of Selwyn House School, was an operations research and financial engineering concentrator and pursued certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing at Princeton.
In his message to the Class of 2020, he urged them to be builders.
“I believe building is the best way to create and value to the world,” he said. “Building is fundamentally a means to serve humanity.”
Identifying what need to be built, he said, is the first step one takes in creating the future.
“It requires an intimate familiarity and engagement with the current state of the world coupled with the capacity to abashedly dream of a distinctly different future.”
He quoted another Princeton alumni Michelle Obama “it was possible to live on two planes at once. To have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. You may live in the world as is but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”
Johnson also referenced the fundamental changes brought on by COVID-19, which he says, “has forced us to reevaluate our structures and functions within society.”
In dealing with what he expects to be the new normal. He called on his peers to be prepared to rise to the occasion.
Let us rise to the occasion to make transformative strides in advancing solutions to the world’s most pressing [problems. Let us fight passionately to ensure that this stressful period of sacrifice will be remembered as a moment in history when diversity of thought, creativity, compassion and bravery conquered fear of a common threat to humankind. With perseverance we will overcome. More than ever, let us build a better normal.
Nicholas Johnson will begin his PhD studies in the fall at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work will more than likely focus on the area of his expertise, which includes “the space of analytics and the space of optimization,” with applications in healthcare or in finance.