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FIRST BLACK TO BE A VALEDICTORIAN IN PRINCETON UNIVERSITY HISTORY OF 274 YEARS

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Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020. He’s is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history of 274 years. The move is seen as a university moving away from its orthodox past when there used to be a big no to blacks as students.

Grace Sommers, a physics concentrator from Bridgewater, New Jersey, has been named the Latin salutatorian.

The Princeton faculty accepted the nominations of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing at its April 27 meeting. Princeton will hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in which Johnson and Sommers will participate. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

Johnson said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests. The University’s support through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were especially significant, Johnson said. But most of all, he treasures his relationships with his classmates. “I hope this achievement serves as an inspiration to black students coming up behind me,” reacted Johnson on becoming first black valedictorian.

The university is a private Ivy league research university in New Jersey, founded in 1746 in Elizabethas College of New Jersey, Princeton is the fourth oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine colonial colleges of chartered before the American revolution. The institution moved of Newark in1747, then to the current site nine years later, it was renamed to Princeton University in 1896.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time 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,” Johnson said.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences. Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

Sommers will continue her studies at Princeton in the fall, entering the physics Ph.D. program. Along with her undergraduate physics degree, she also is pursuing certificates in applications of computing, applied and computational mathematics, and Ancient Roman language and culture.

Sommers said Princeton has offered her exceptional opportunities for intellectual growth, especially in the field that has captured her long-term interest.

“In addition to the joy of learning the material — which is why I chose physics — the approachability of my professors, both as advisers and as instructors, has been a highlight of my learning experience,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to find research opportunities on campus for all three summers, which was another enriching part of my Princeton experience.”

Her senior thesis, “Order and Disorder in a New Class of Spin Systems,” advised by Shivaji Sondhi, professor of physics, focuses on the statistical mechanics of a spin model with applications to dynamical phenomena such as jamming and glassy dynamics.

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