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Q&A with Nicholas Johnson ’20, U.’s first black valedictorian

<h6>Courtesy of Nicholas Johnson ’20</h6>
Courtesy of Nicholas Johnson ’20

Nicholas Johnson ’20 was recently named the valedictorian of the University’s Class of 2020, making him the first black valedictorian in the University’s 274-year history. Johnson is a concentrator in operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) from Montreal, Quebec, pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing. After graduation, Johnson will spend the summer interning remotely with the D.E. Shaw Group as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer before pursuing a Ph.D. in operations research at MIT beginning in fall 2020.

In a conversation with The Daily Princetonian on May 13, Johnson shared his reflections on being named valedictorian, responding to challenging situations, and growing as an undergraduate. 

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The Daily Princetonian (DP): What drew you to your particular areas of study?

Nicholas Johnson (NJ): So I came into Princeton knowing that I wanted to be an engineer but not entirely sure which engineering department I wanted to work in. I've always really loved math and the sciences. I’ve generally always been a fairly analytical thinker. I played chess very competitively throughout high school and also wrote several math competitions. And when I got to Princeton, I started off doing the first year BSE curriculum, but it was really in the spring when I took COS 126: Computer Science — An Interdisciplinary Approach, my first ever computer science class, that I really learned or realized how much I enjoy computer science. I really wanted to make computer science more central in my studies, and when I looked at the ORFE department, I felt like the ORFE department was the best engineering department to combine my interests, both my newfound interest in computer science and my initial interest in math. I also really liked how the skill set that ORFE students develop is broadly applicable across varied application domains. That’s something that I really liked, that I in some sense channeled through many of my research projects, in that my research projects are focused in two relatively distinct application areas.

DP: What have you studied through your independent research?

NJ: My senior thesis was studying a preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada and modeling that particular type of health intervention as an optimization problem and then developing algorithms to solve that optimization problem on large scales. So, concretely, that would mean being able to take a preventative health intervention and scale it up such that it would be applicable for communities with thousands or tens of thousands of individuals. That was the most significant research project that I've worked on this year. I submitted that a few weeks ago and I'm very, very happy with what I was able to accomplish. 

But I also had another project — that is actually an ongoing project — where I'm working with a faculty member from the Bendheim Center for Finance. [It] actually uses a very similar technical tool set as the senior thesis project that I just described but focuses on working on a problem in the financial sector. Specifically, the problem is related to how to execute financial trades with minimal market distortion. What I really like about these two projects is that methodologically, the techniques that I'm studying are actually, in fact, relatively similar; however, the application stages are quite different. And that really exemplifies what I was trying to point to earlier about ORFE being a skill set that is broadly applicable across domains.

DP: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

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NJ: I’m very passionate about entrepreneurship. I’m a very strong proponent of entrepreneurship as a way to take very groundbreaking academic research and transform it into a format or into a product that can then be used by non-academic members of the larger society, such that the impact of this interesting research isn't constrained to the specific academic discipline or the specific institution at which it occurs. So in an ideal world, I truly hope that whatever I work on as my Ph.D. thesis at MIT is something that I can then transform into a venture. So 10 years from now, I could be still involved with that, or I could have perhaps handed off the leadership of that to another group of people and be working towards using a lot of the techniques that I've developed during my time at Princeton and during my future years at MIT to continue to create additional analytics-based organizations that work either in healthcare or perhaps other sectors.

DP: What was it like finding out that you were valedictorian?

NJ: It felt very rewarding and empowering, particularly when I was informed that I was the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history. So it is actually I suppose a funny story of how I was, in fact, notified. The University made the first official press release on April 27, at which point they confirmed that I had in fact been selected as the valedictorian but hadn't yet confirmed that I was the first black valedictorian.

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And it was only in an interview I was doing last week on Thursday, I believe, that the University did in fact confirm this as they were asking me a question. So they really put me on the spot, and it was a lot to take in and a lot to absorb in the moment. It is extremely empowering. It means a lot to me, particularly given Princeton’s history. And I hope that this event serves as inspiration to other students who look like me and all people regardless of race, gender, and age.

DP: What does being valedictorian mean to you? 

NJ: I think it’s very empowering, as I was mentioning earlier, specifically in the context of Princeton’s history. The first nine presidents of Princeton were slave owners. Several professors were as well, and slaves have previously been auctioned on Princeton’s property. So I think given that historical context, those historical beginnings, to now have had a black valedictorian is a very significant event. 

However, at the same time, the fact that it has taken 274 years is alarming and just goes to show how much work still needs to be done. Princeton really has been a leader among its peer institutions in reflecting about its role in perpetuating the institution of slavery. I think particularly the Princeton & Slavery Project which was started a few years ago as a coalition across professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students has been very, very helpful at uncovering these previously buried stories and thinking critically about what can be done now, today, to try and make the Princeton environment a more open and supportive environment.

DP: How have you felt receiving significant media attention as a result of being named the University’s first black valedictorian?

NJ: It’s been extremely overwhelming. I'm extremely proud of what I've been able to do and extremely grateful for everyone who's helped me get to where I am in my journey so far. My parents, my older sister, all of my Princeton mentors, and my close friends have been absolutely, incredibly influential in my path thus far. It is a lot to handle right now. I feel very fortunate to have been afforded this very particular platform, and I've been trying to do my best to use this platform to project a meaningful message to everyone who comes across these articles, comes across these press releases. 

However, while doing that, I do also have to focus on fulfilling my remaining academic obligations — the Dean’s Date assignments that were due yesterday, the take [home exams]. And also, Princeton has asked me to prepare my valedictorian speech for Dean’s Date as well, so I actually just pre-recorded that yesterday and delivered that to Princeton to be included in the virtual commencement program happening on the 31st [of May].

DP: How did you craft your valedictorian speech?

NJ: Writing the speech was a difficult task. Valedictorian speeches are generally difficult to write. My hope is to be able to convey a message that's inspiring to my classmates; broadly applicable across students with differing academic interests, very differing personal interests; and also very timely considering the unique global environment that we're graduating into. It is really unprecedented to be graduating into a global pandemic, and I hope that I'm able to inspire my classmates to not feel intimidated by the current world situation and to continue to have the confidence to use their skills, use their talents to positively impact the world.

DP: How has COVID-19 affected your senior year? 

NJ: It’s been extremely difficult and in some sense disappointing to not have the opportunity to spend these last few weeks of my Princeton experience on campus, celebrating with my classmates, with my close friends, with the people that I've spent the past four very transformative years of my life with. Many of the classmates that I’ve spoken to feel similarly. 

That being said, I recognize that the University did what was best and took the correct course of action in playing its role in curbing the spread of COVID-19. I feel very comforted that the University is committed to having an in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 in May 2021 to recognize our class’s achievements. And I have also been comforted by the fact that members of the Princeton community have really done an excellent job, in my opinion, of preserving that sense of community that exists on campus even now, virtually, despite our physical separation. I often go on Zoom calls with my close friends, and we simultaneously do our work on our own while also being on that call, just to create a sense of camaraderie, and that, personally, I found very helpful. 

DP: What have you been involved with outside of the classroom, and how has that involvement shaped your Princeton experience?

NJ: I’m an RCA in Whitman [College]; I was also an RCA last year. It's been one of the most meaningful activities I’ve done over the course of my entire Princeton experience, having a chance to work with students across all years in Whitman. Whitman was the [residential] college that I was in my first two years as well, so it's also the college that I've called home my entire four years at Princeton. I work as a Writing Fellow at the Writing Center, and I work on the Tortoise journal. 

I also did a lot of work with Engineers Without Borders during my time at Princeton, particularly in my first three years, and now in my fourth year, I've stepped back into more of an advisory role. That was a really significant experience that really shaped particularly my freshman year. During my freshman summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru with part of the Engineers Without Borders Peru team to implement a design of a water distribution system that we had been working on during the school year, and that was a really transformational experience. It was one of the most significant international experiences I've had while at Princeton, and I really enjoyed bonding with the other students on that trip, bonding with the local community members, and working on an extremely impactful project. 

Other things that I do in my free time: I love to play basketball, and I love to play chess recreationally with friends, and I also enjoy running.

DP: What have been some of the most transformative experiences you’ve had as an undergraduate?

NJ: I certainly think of all of the international experiences that I’ve had in addition to the trip to Peru that I mentioned. During my sophomore summer, I spent eight weeks in the U.K. doing an IIP [International Internship Program] organized by the Office of International Programs. And at that time, that was the longest period I'd spent away from home, living abroad, living on my own. That was truly a growth-filled opportunity. I was also working on a research project that I found particularly stimulating and a project that will likely be related to the topics I focus on as a Ph.D. student. 

I also had the chance to participate in a week-long exchange to Hong Kong at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, organized through Whitman during my freshman spring. That was my first time visiting anywhere in the Eastern hemisphere. It was truly a learning-filled experience — interacting with college students at the CUHK, visiting Hong Kong, learning about its culture, learning about its history — and that was really an experience that I cherished. 

DP: What has been your biggest challenge at Princeton?

NJ: During my junior year, I tore my ACL playing basketball over Intersession. The accident occurred on the second to last day of Intersession; I was at home in Montreal, and it was one day before I was supposed to return back to Princeton. So naturally, immediately after the injury, I couldn’t walk. I was in no state to travel, and I had to remain home for the first week and a half of the semester to be diagnosed and to start some initial treatment. And then when I finally returned back to Princeton, I was not entirely mobile: I had to use a scooter for, I believe, four weeks, and then, even after I was able to start to start walking normally again, I had to be going to physical therapy sessions at least three times a week to work on strengthening that leg. 

That was a really challenging experience because with my reduced mobility, I couldn’t participate in Princeton’s community in the manner in which I normally had. It was a lot more difficult to get to my classes on time, to meet my academic responsibilities. And I'm really grateful for my friends who really supported me during that time. They would often help me — even something as simple as getting dinner in the dining hall I was having a lot of trouble with because it was difficult to navigate a scooter through to the dining room, so just having friends that were willing to get me a plate of food or to drop something off by my room was just incredibly helpful, and I'm really grateful for that. 

DP: It’s easy to see that you’ve been very successful, given your role as valedictorian and your other accomplishments. However, we don’t often talk about our failures at Princeton. Can you describe a moment of failure and how you responded to it?

NJ: There are definitely several moments when I didn't feel that I’d lived up to my own expectations or the expectations that some of my peers or mentors had of me. Thinking back to my junior year, for example, I chose to pursue an independent work project during my spring semester, and I had really ambitious goals for that project, and the faculty member that I was working with was very much on board with that project. However, as the semester advanced, the progress I was making was nowhere near the amount of progress I’d hoped to have made. I think the reasons for that were severalfold. This was the same semester immediately after the accident I just described. It was also a semester where I was taking more classes than normal, which was also a poor decision in hindsight. And I was also just doing a very poor job, to be entirely honest, with prioritizing time to be spent exclusively working on this particular piece of independent work. So I often found myself in checkpoint meetings with my mentor presenting updates that weren't actually that substantial. 

I think that the way I ended up responding to that challenge, responding to that failure, was just being very candid with my mentor — expressing the fact and acknowledging the fact that what I was sharing with him wasn't my best work and that part of the reason that it wasn't my best work was due to poor decisions that I myself had made — and just talking to him very openly and trying to reevaluate what reasonable expectations and what reasonable goals would be moving forward in the semester.

DP: What advice would you give your first-year self?

NJ: One thing that I started doing a lot more as an upperclassman that I wish I had started to do more from the beginning of my Princeton career is, on the one hand, to be extremely protective of the time that I put aside to spend with my close friends on campus. When I reflect back on a lot of the bonding moments, a lot of the conversations I’ve had, both with close friends and acquaintances in my year, the growth and the learning that has come from those exchanges has often been some of the most significant learning that I have done over the course of my Princeton career. So I think that it is extremely valuable to protect the time that you set aside to develop and maintain those relationships.

And then on the flip side, I think it’s also extremely important to continue to be deliberate in meeting new members of your class that you have not previously necessarily met and working to develop those new relationships, even after that period in freshman year and that first portion of sophomore year when people are extremely social and extremely outgoing. I think it's very easy to kind of, you know, retract or contract yourself at a certain point. But, again, most of the most significant learning that I've experienced while at Princeton has been a consequence of these types of personal interactions with other members of my class.

DP: Do you think Princeton has changed you? If so, how?

NJ:  I think Princeton has changed me by facilitating a significant amount of learning and personal growth, both with respect to my academic discipline, with respect to my worldview, and also with respect to my knowledge of my own person. I think that facilitating that type of learning and that type of growth has been transformational in who I am today compared to who I was four years ago. And I think that coupled with that, Princeton has very much helped me develop a toolset or a skill set that will stick with me throughout the rest of my academic and professional career. 

Johnson’s valedictorian speech will be part of the Class of 2020’s virtual commencement ceremony scheduled for May 31, 2020. An in-person ceremony honoring the Class of 2020 will be held in May 2021. 

Read last week’s Q&A with salutatorian Grace Sommers ’20 here.

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