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Princeton Gets First Black Valedictorian in 274-Year History

Canadian student Nicholas Johnson will speak at virtual ceremony
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 11, 2020 2:56 PM CDT

(Newser) – A historic first at Princeton: The Ivy League university has named the first black valedictorian in its 274-year history. Nicholas Johnson, a Canadian student who majored in operations research and financial engineering, will speak at a virtual commencement ceremony on May 31, which will be followed by an in-person event in May next year, the Daily Princetonian reports. The 22-year-old tells ABC that he was "really surprised" by the achievement, which he considers especially significant "because of Princeton’s past historical ties to the institution of slavery." The first nine of the New Jersey university's president were slave owners and after the 1766 death of its fifth president, Samuel Finley, his slaves were auctioned on campus.

Johnson tells the New York Times that Princeton has been "very much been a leader amongst its peer institutions" and "very critical and cognizant about its ties to slavery." He says being named valedictorian "is very empowering" and he hopes "the achievement can serve as an inspiration and motivation for black students." Johnson, who will begin his PhD in operations research at MIT this fall, tells CNN it's disappointing that the Class of 2020 can't celebrate together this year, but he's grateful to the administration for committing to holding an in-person commencement in 2021. "I have been comforted to see how well my friends and classmates have adapted to these challenging times," he says. (Read more Princeton University stories.)

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