In this Commencement episode of the PAWcast, valedictorian Nicholas Johnson ’20, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator, reflects on his time at Princeton. Johnson’s achievement is especially notable because he is the first black valedictorian in the University’s 274-year history. “It’s extremely overwhelming and a lot to take in, but also very empowering at the same time,” Johnson said. He will be heading to MIT in the fall to pursue a Ph.D. in operations research. Johnson spoke with Carlett Spike over Zoom about his historic achievement, the impact of the pandemic on his last semester at Princeton, and the message he hopes to send to his peers in the Class of 2020.
Carlett Spike: Hello, I’m Carlett Spike, writer and assistant editor for Princeton Alumni Weekly, and welcome back to the PAWcast. This is the Commencement edition. Today, our guest is Nicholas Johnson, the valedictorian for the Class of 2020. In addition to this achievement, Johnson has also made history as Princeton’s first black valedictorian. Let me say that again: He is Princeton’s first black valedictorian. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Johnson is an operations research and financial engineering concentrator who is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing. This summer, he will be interning for the D.E. Shaw Group and will be pursuing his Ph.D. in operations research at MIT in the fall. But first, Johnson will be delivering the valedictory address at Princeton’s Virtual Commencement ceremony on May 31. That’s a lot. Welcome, Nicholas. Thank you for joining me.
Nicholas Johnson: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
CS: Awesome. I have to say congratulations on all of your achievements. How does it feel, and how does it feel to be making history?
NJ: It’s extremely overwhelming and a lot to take in, but also very empowering at the same time. Being valedictorian, firstly, is very rewarding. It’s an incredible achievement and also very much an honor for me to have the privilege to address my class on the day of our Commencement. And then beyond that, being the first black valedictorian in the University’s history is extremely empowering in and of itself, particularly given Princeton’s history. I think it says a lot that Princeton now has a black valedictorian given the nature of the University’s history. However, the fact that it has taken this long for there to be a black valedictorian does also show how far we still need to go.
CS: Absolutely, I totally agree. It’s a big deal. I mean, we were talking in the beginning that you were all over the news. You have been on Twitter. I’ve seen Michelle Obama [’85] and Oprah Winfrey share congratulatory tweets towards you. I mean, how does all that attention feel?
NJ: It feels great to have that kind of support from such significant figures, people who have done so much for the world and left such a positive impact, particularly when Michelle Obama retweeted my message, that really just made my day, on a day when I was particularly stressed between academic responsibilities and the media requests. And so it was really enlightening to see her share that message. And it is, I feel very fortunate. I’ve been afforded a very significant platform, and I hope to use this platform to inspire people who look like me, and people in the world just to have the confidence to pursue their dreams, and also to fight passionately for the world.
CS: Right, so, nice. To switch gears a little bit, we’re going to kind of go back to the beginning of your time at Princeton. What first interested you in coming to the University?
NJ: There were several things that drew me to Princeton. One of the most significant things that attracted me was the focus on undergraduate education. That was something that had been sold to me by Princeton representatives I had spoken to, alumni, and my academic advisers who were familiar with Princeton and some of its peer institutions, and that focus on undergraduate education is something that I’ve really had the opportunity to benefit from over my years at Princeton.
I’ve had the chance to work very closely with many professors on many of my research projects, and also on some of my coursework, and I really doubt that I would have had that same opportunity had I gone to a different institution for my undergraduate education.
Princeton has a gorgeous campus; that goes without saying. That really sold me the first time I visited. And Princeton’s international student body, a very diverse international student body, has also really been a formative part of my Princeton experience. Many of my closest friends come from communities and cultures around the world that I had no familiarity with before starting my undergraduate curriculum, and having conversations with them about their upbringing has been very, very influential in my Princeton experience.
CS: Nice. So it’s been four years. I know there’s probably a lot of different things that have happened over your time, but if you could talk a little bit about your experience on campus, and if there’s any highlights or moments that really stand out to you?
NJ: Some of my favorite memories from my Princeton experience are the international experiences that I was able to have access to. I spent part of my freshman summer in Peru with Princeton’s Engineers Without Borders team. I spent part of my sophomore summer in the United Kingdom doing an international internship organized by the Office of International Programs, which was an incredible opportunity. I got to participate in an exchange program in Hong Kong over spring break during my freshman year. So those international experiences were really incredible, to travel to this foreign environment with a group of Princeton students, and just engage with local students, local community members, and just really learn in an unfamiliar environment.
I really appreciated having access to a lot of the guest speakers that Princeton brought in over my years. I think that my freshman year, at times I didn’t really appreciate the significance of that opportunity, and sometimes was reluctant to drop something I might have had scheduled to attend one of these guest speakers, but starting my sophomore year and beyond, I really started taking advantage of that because it is really incredible access that students are afforded.
CS: Great. So on the flipside of that, what would you say has been one of the hardest parts of your journey at Princeton?
NJ: I grew up in Montreal. I’m very much used to growing up, or living in a very urban environment. So I do think that Princeton not being located in a city was something that was certainly something I had to adapt to, something I had to get used to. Also as an international student, there were several cultural differences, or novel cultural traits that I had to adapt myself to. Things that surprised me for one, many American students to this day claim that I have an accent when I speak English, which I’m not convinced that that’s the case, but I have been told that many times. So that was also one thing that I had to adapt to, that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Living away from home in a foreign country was also a significant burden. Not being able to see my family members regularly was hard on me, particularly during my freshman year, but I was able to adapt to that as I continued at Princeton.
CS: So now that you’re at the end of your time as a student, and I’m sure that this has been a big time of reflection, I guess especially in light of everything that’s happened with COVID-19, is there any advice you would give your freshman self, or anything you wish you had done differently?
NJ: I think that one thing I would have done differently — this is something that I only started doing as an upperclassman — is to be very deliberate in protecting the time that I set aside to spend with my close friends on campus, and also to be very deliberate in continuing to try to get to know as many people in my class as possible, even beyond that period in freshman and perhaps early sophomore year when people are generally particularly social.
When I reflect back on my Princeton experience, which is something that I have had to do very significantly while preparing my valedictorian speech, I really do think primarily of significant conversations I’ve had with both close friends and also acquaintances in my class, or in some of the other years that I overlapped with. And I think that a lot of those conversations, a lot of the learning and growth that happened from those interactions, will be some of the most significant learning and growth that I carry from my Princeton experience.
CS: Right. You mentioned your speech coming up. Have you written it? Are there certain themes that you’re planning to focus on, or things that you want the class to take away?
NJ: Yes, I’ve written it, and I prerecorded it yesterday for the Commencement ceremony happening on the 31st. With respect to what I’m willing to say right now, one message I really hope to be able to convey is a confidence to impact the world through building, broadly defined. So when I say “broadly defined,” I mean building not simply restricted to tangible objects, but you know, broader concepts, things like building communities, building traditions, etc. And I really hope to be able to inspire my classmates to have the confidence to go out into the world and do that, despite the fact that we are graduating into a pandemic, likely into a recession, really graduating in an unprecedented moment.
CS: OK. So talk to me a little bit about your thesis. What brought you to the topic? Let’s start there.
NJ: A few things brought me to my thesis topic. Firstly, as you mentioned, I’m an operations research major, which is a very technical major, and I wanted my thesis to both have a very difficult or interesting technical aspect, while also being very applicable to a problem that many people can appreciate, and that many people might face. Coupled with that, being a very proud Canadian, I wanted to be working on a problem that had very concrete applications in Canada, that was very much related to Canadian issues. And thirdly, I wanted to work on a project that combined machine learning with applications designed for humanitarian purposes. So that accommodation of those three avenues and also the guidance of my adviser, Professor Miklos Racz in the ORFE department, led me to eventually identify what I ended up studying, which was looking at a preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada, and looking at how that intervention could be modeled as an optimization problem, and one that could be solved on large systems. So concretely, that would be being able to implement the intervention in a very large community.
CS: I listened to you on Princeton’s We Roar podcast, and you talked a little bit about how there might be connections between what you’re focusing on with health, the obesity realm of things, to possibly maybe connections to what they’re doing with research related to COVID-19. Could you talk a little bit about those connections, and talk about if you’re interested in pursuing things related to that, or if that’s like a new avenue that might be interesting for people studying operational research?
NJ: Yes, absolutely, you’re very right in saying there are some potential connections. So the primary connection would be designing a public-health intervention with the purpose of increasing adherence to strict social distancing. So social distancing is arguably one of the best tools we have to fight the spread of COVID-19 presently. However, individuals adhere to social distancing to varying extents.
So if health-care practitioners, or public-health officials wanted to create some sort of community-based intervention to change the extent to which individuals in the community adhere to social distancing, then an intervention that in fact exactly mirrors the intervention I was working with in my thesis for obesity would actually be applicable. And I do think that it is potentially a promising avenue to pursue. I think that it is something that I’m certainly interested in looking at myself, and in addition to the media interest, I have had many health-care practitioners express interest in working with me to try and flesh out some of these connections more concretely. So I’m really excited about that.
CS: That’s great. I guess kind of sticking with the topic of COVID, but switching to your own experience, it goes without saying, the Class of 2020 has had pretty extraordinary experience related to COVID. You all had to transition, or most people had to transition off campus in March and kind of shift gears to online learning. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like for you, and I know I’ve talked to lots of seniors that have very mixed emotions about everything, so I’m just curious how you’ve been feeling about it.
NJ: It has been a very difficult transition to make. I myself, I’m fortunate to have been able to come to a home environment in which I do feel like I have a conducive workspace and work environment in which I can continue to meet Princeton’s academic demands. However that isn’t the case for all of my classmates. So this unfortunate transition that we have had to make to fight COVID-19 does unfortunately exacerbate existing inequalities among the student body.
It has also been very difficult to not be able to celebrate these last few weeks of my Princeton experience on campus with my close friends, the people who I have spent the past four extremely transformational years of my life with on campus as we had anticipated we would do for several years. I am comforted that I have been able to maintain — I myself and many of my classmates have been able to maintain the Princeton community despite our physical distance from one another. I often work on Zoom calls with my friends, so we would each be working on our own personal homework while being able to see each other across Zoom, and that creates a nice sense of community, a nice sense of camaraderie that keeps us going despite this unfortunately work circumstance.
CS: Absolutely. Do you plan on coming back for the in-person ceremony next year?
NJ: Absolutely, I can’t wait. I can’t wait for May 2021. That’s really going to be an incredible celebration. I’m so happy that Princeton committed to hosting an in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 to recognize our achievement, and this incredible milestone, and from speaking with many of my classmates, most of them feel similarly excited.
CS: OK, great. I have some broader questions. I guess the first is, who inspires you, and who do you look up to?
NJ: The number of people who inspire me is effectively endless. My parents come to mind immediately, and my sister as well. I have an older sister; she’s four years older than me, studying in New York currently, and I really grew up looking up to her. All of my academic study habits I effectively adopted from watching her. And I’ve really admired how she’s had the confidence to pursue her passion to the level that she has. She’s in the performing arts. She’s in fact been Grammy-nominated; she’s released an album, currently studying graduate musical-theater writing. So she’s really inspired me. My parents really instilled a strong work ethic in me from a very young age, and many of my close relatives were also particularly influential. Beyond family members, many of the educators I’ve had the chance to learn from and get to know over the course of my journey thus far have been absolutely incredibly significant. I think of many of my high school teachers at Selwyn High School in Montreal. Some of my educators at Marianopolis College, which was also another school I attended in Montreal before starting at Princeton, and several of my faculty mentors at Princeton have been absolutely incredible. So those are the people who come to mind immediately.
CS: OK, great. Obviously you do so much. You’re incredibly accomplished and work hard, but what do you do for fun, and what do you do to relax?
NJ: I like to play basketball and to play chess recreationally as a way to relax. Those are actually two activities that I’m very passionate about and two activities that I, in a past life played competitively, but have now transitioned to engaging them purely as hobbies. I’m very much into physical fitness, so I enjoy running a lot. And I do also enjoy reading in my spare time; it is something that — it is a nice way to just detach yourself from the world in some sense and to really let your mind run, let your mind walk freely through the book in some sense, so that’s also one of my favorite pastimes.
CS: Nice. So in the beginning of our conversation, you kind of talked about the fact that given this accomplishment, you know, you have a big platform, and I’m sure there’s students from other schools who are now looking up to you, and really proud of your accomplishment. If you could give a message to the Class of 2020 as a whole, I guess across the world, if you will, is there anything that you would say to them or a message that you would hope that they kind of carry on, as we talked about also that they’ll be graduating into probably the ongoing pandemic and potentially a recession?
NJ: I think I would say that these times are certainly unprecedented, particularly for people in our generation, people younger than us, we’ve never before seen anything like this. That being said, the COVID-19 pandemic will pass, provided of course that we each play our own role in ensuring that it does pass. And when it does, in fact, pass, I do firmly believe that we will come out of it on the other side as being more committed, more resilient, and more emboldened to use our own skills, to use our own personal experiences, and to use our own expertise to play our part in contributing to creating a new normal in the world. And I am confident that the Class of 2020 will rise to that challenge.
CS: Great. So I’ll close with an age-old question that everybody hates, including myself, but where do you see yourself in five years, or what do you hope to accomplish by then?
NJ: Five years from now, I hope to have completed by Ph.D. studies at MIT, and I hope to have started a venture designed to use state-of-the-art analytics to positively impact, likely health care or perhaps some other industry. I’m a very strong proponent in entrepreneurship as a way to take groundbreaking academic research, particularly in STEM fields, and make it broadly applicable to the larger public. So I do really hope that the topic of my Ph.D. thesis is something that leads very nicely into the creation of a venture that I can use to distribute that work to society.
CS: Thank you again for coming on the PAWcast, and I’m really, really looking forward to hearing your address later this month. Thank you.
NJ: It was my pleasure, thank you too.