Listen to Princeton's Historic 1st Black Valedictorian's Inspiring Graduation Speech

Nicholas Johnson, Princeton's first Black valedictorian delivered a powerful speech about building a better community during his virtual address on graduation day. 

Princeton’s first Black Valedictorian capped his historic achievement with an inspiring speech on graduation day.

Nicholas Johnson, an operations and financial engineering major, delivered his pre-recorded valedictory address from his home in Montreal during Princeton’s virtual commencement ceremony on May 31.

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Congratulations to Nicholas Johnson, named valedictorian and Grace Sommers, named Latin salutatorian for #Princeton20! 👏⁣ ⁣ Nicholas Johnson ’20⁣ Hometown: Montréal, Québec⁣ Major: Operations Research and Financial Engineering⁣ Certificates: Statistics and Machine Learning, Applied and Computational Mathematics, and Applications of Computing⁣ Residential College: @whitmanatprinceton⁣ Thesis: “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic”⁣ Post-grad plans: Johnson begins Ph.D. studies in operations research at @MITpics.⁣ ⁣ “My favorite memories of my time at #PrincetonU are [those] spent 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."⁣ ⁣ Grace Sommers ’20⁣ Hometown: Bridgewater, NJ⁣ Major: Physics⁣ Certificates: Applications of Computing, Applied and Computational Mathematics, Ancient Roman Language and Culture⁣ Residential College: @butlercollegeprinceton⁣ Thesis: “Order and Disorder in a New Class of Spin Systems”⁣ Post-grad plans: Sommers begins Ph.D. studies in physics right here at #PrincetonU.⁣ ⁣ “In addition to the joy of learning the material … the approachability of my professors, both as advisers and as instructors, has been a highlight of my learning experience … I’ve enjoyed having thought-provoking conversations with my professors and classmates."⁣ ⁣ Johnson and Sommers will participate in the 2020 virtual commencement on May 31, 2020. Congrats to Nicholas and Grace!

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In his speech, he stressed the importance of “building” as “a vehicle of progress and bridge to a better future.” He also encouraged his fellow graduates to help build and create not just tangible objects but communities, relationships, traditions, and memories.

Johnson made African Americans proud by being the first Black Princeton valedictorian in the university’s 274-year history.

At one point, the 22-year-old also quoted Princeton alumnus, Michelle Obama who said,

“It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once, to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress.”

Towards the end of his address, Johnson challenged his audience to answer the question, “What needs to be built?” and keep learning while obtaining answers.

Michelle Obama promoting her book, "Becoming" in Tacoma, Washington in March 2019. | Photo: Getty Images

Michelle Obama promoting her book, "Becoming" in Tacoma, Washington in March 2019. | Photo: Getty Images

Citing COVID-19, he urged them to “rise to the occasion to make transformative strides in advancing solutions” to this and other problems of the world. Then he parted with these powerful words:

“With perseverance, we will overcome. More than ever, let us build a better normal. Meanwhile, let us look forward to the promise of act two in person next spring!”

Johnson made African Americans proud by being the first Black Princeton valedictorian in the university’s 274-year history. Mrs. Obama was especially thrilled and extended her congratulations two weeks ago when the announcement was made.

Johnson was also proud of what he had accomplished noting that Princeton was a predominantly White institution. According to the New York Times, only 419 of the school's 5,328 undergraduates are Black. 

It is unfortunate that this historic moment was clouded by the pandemic which forced Princeton to hold its rites virtually. However, the school intends to hold the in-person ceremony in May 2021.

Johnson, who also loves basketball and chess, intends to pursue further studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to obtain a doctorate in operations research. 

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