By Claretta Bellamy
Nicholas André G. Johnson (ΦBK, Princeton University), a member of Princeton University’s class of 2020, has made history as the university’s first Black student to be honored as valedictorian. The title is given to those who have the highest academic standing in their senior class and who have excelled throughout their entire undergraduate journey. The 22-year-old was first notified in April that he was selected as valedictorian by the Princeton University faculty committee. It wasn’t until two weeks later, during his interview on the university’s podcast “We Roar,” that he learned he was the first Black valedictorian in the institution’s history.
“It was a lot to take in,” says Johnson. “It felt incredibly empowering given the university’s history, given so many of my role models throughout my life — particularly Black role models who have always encouraged me to really pursue my interests to the best of my ability and to not let myself be discouraged by environments I entered that were dominated by people who don’t look like me. For those reasons, it really meant a lot to me.”
A Canadian native, Johnson was born in Gaspé, a small town in eastern Quebec, and was raised in Montreal. During his childhood, he enjoyed participating in chess competitions and played varsity-level basketball throughout high school.
With both parents pursuing careers in medicine, Johnson was motivated early to pursue STEM topics. His mother is a family medicine and geriatrics physician, his father an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. In addition to being motivated by his parents, Johnson also says that his sister — a current actress, singer, and songwriter attending the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University — has greatly inspired him as well. “Seeing her pursue her passion to the level at which she has thus far has really inspired me to do the same in my own pursuits,” says Johnson.
In Quebec, most students attend two years of junior college after their three years of high school, and then go on to finish their remaining three years at a Canadian university. Taking a non-traditional path, Johnson decided to apply to Princeton after his first year of junior college in Quebec.
Johnson arrived at Princeton as a chemical engineering and pre-medical student, with hopes of continuing down the same path as his parents. It wasn’t until he was introduced to computer science in his first year that he discovered his love for the subject, and also rediscovered his love of math. Johnson then decided to pursue the field of operations research and financial engineering instead of medicine.
“I realized that the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering was the best place in which I could continue to develop those interests,” says Johnson. “I also really love the fact that the combination of math skills and computer science skills allowed me to develop a skill set that positioned me to build solutions that tackle really important problems.”
During his time at Princeton, Johnson has had a number of fulfilling experiences. For three years he served as a writing fellow, assisting undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students in various writing tasks, including essays, applications, and research projects. He also served as a student mentor for incoming freshmen.
One of Johnson’s most memorable experiences took place during 2017 as a member of Princeton University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The organization allowed Johnson, along with a small group of other students, to travel to Pusunchás, Peru, where they built a water distribution system for a community that had limited access to clean drinking water. Enjoying his experience in Peru, Johnson decided to serve as the project manager for the Peru project his second year, and went on to serve as the co-president for Engineers Without Borders at Princeton during his third year.
“That was one of the most meaningful groups that I was a part of during my time at Princeton,” says Johnson. “I’m very happy to say that now, four years later, the project has been finished and gives water to 120 families in that community.”
After becoming valedictorian, Johnson received support and praise worldwide. Many prominent individuals, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former first lady Michelle Obama, recognized Johnson for his great achievement.
“Michelle Obama is one of the Princeton alumni that I view in the highest regards, and to see her be so supportive of this event on my path is really inspirational,” says Johnson. “Now that I have been recognized as such, with the platform I have been given, I do really hope to be able to have a similar inspirational effect on younger students that are seeing this for the first time in their lives. Regardless of race, I do hope to be a source of inspiration for all students that want to achieve their passions and might have to break barriers in doing so.”
In terms of his future plans, Johnson will be enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall to begin his Ph.D. program in operations research. With the hopes of following an entrepreneurial path, he wants to use his career to turn academic research into a tool that can be translated into products for all members of society.
Driven to create a better future, Johnson believes in the power of a liberal arts education and appreciates how The Phi Beta Kappa Society celebrates an individual’s dedication to pursuing knowledge and interest in tackling real-world problems.
“I believe that strong performance is indicative of a certain commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and is also a commitment to curiosity and the thirst for knowledge,” says Johnson. “Those are values that are very important to me, and that I very much internalized throughout my upbringing, throughout my academic career thus far, and values that I continue to act on. So, I think that being part of a society that brings together individuals that share those same values is something that makes me very proud.”
Claretta Bellamy earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Rutgers University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Rutgers University is home to the Alpha of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.