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

Claudine Varela
Jun 03, 2020
02:30 A.M.

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.


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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