“The ancestors are dancing…”
Just for a moment, in early May, Nicholas Johnson, a 22 year-old student was able to shift the minds of many people around the world away from C0VID-19, the rampaging coronavirus that has already afflicted close to 5 million and killed well over 300,000 globally.
Such was the out-pouring of attention and enthusiasm that followed the young Montrealer being named valedictorian of the Class of 2020 at Princeton University.
Johnson is the first Black student to earn that distinction in one of the world’s most prestigious institution of higher learning which was established in 1734, the fourth oldest college in the USA and boasts of having over 40 Nobel laureates, seven Pulitzer Prize winners and three U.S. Presidents that have walked its hallowed halls as faculty or student.
And he stands among a distinguished group of Black and Hispanic alumni who are making their mark on the socio-political landscape of the U.S., including former First Lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Professor Cornel West, who has the distinction of being the first African American to earn a PhD in Philosophy at Princeton.
Johnson was at home here in Montreal, in late April, when the call came from administrators at the university informing him of their monumental decision.
In the midst of completing his academic work for the year, he took the news in stride, sharing it with his parents and continued with his assignments to complete requirements for his degree in operations research and financial engineering with certificates (or minors) in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.
He is on his way to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for his PhD studies, and looking forward to working closely with vaunted Professor Dimitris Bertsimas, an Associate Dean of Business Analytics, Boeing Professor of Operations Research and Faculty Director of the Master of Business Analytics Program and world renowned for leading PhD students into the realm of entrepreneurialism.
A few days after the announcement, Princeton University confirmed that Johnson was indeed the first Black valedictorian in the institution’s 274 year history.
When one of his friends shared the news on his twitter account, within 24 hours, it had garnered more than 100,000 ‘likes’ or ‘favorites’, opening the floodgates of calls from well-wishers and media from around the world to Johnson.
And it wasn’t long before his achievement was being featured on every major media outlet across North America, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, Black Enterprise, AfroBeats, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as nationally and locally on CTV, CBC, Global, CJAD Radio, Montreal Gazette, Radio Canada, Journal de Montreal and Le Devoir, among others.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before the story was one of the top trending tweets in the wild west of information that is social media.
The story also made its way to the pages of a daily newspaper in Spain and Chinese media as well as across the Caribbean in Jamaica and The Bahamas.
Complimentary messages were flowing in via twitter and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among dozens of political leaders across North America who tweeted offering words of congratulations on Johnson’s history making achievements.
Oprah Winfrey expressed her elation with a historically relevant tweet: “The Ancestors are dancing and so am I…”
And in her tweet, Senator Kamla Harris, recent candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nominee, urged Nicholas to “keep using your gifts to show the next generation of young Blacks what’s possible.”
In a letter, Justice Sotomayor noted that Johnson’s accomplishment hinged on “not only extraordinary academics, but social, moral and personal excellence…”
The letter from Governor General Cornelius A. Smith of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas reminded Johnson that he is a role model for young men around the world.
Johnson was especially moved by a tweet from Michelle Obama, also a Princeton alumni who mused about the greatness that might be ahead.
“I think that tweet made my week because I’ve always admired former First Lady, Michelle Obama both as an alumni and because of what she has achieved and her contributions. Her photo is very prominent in one of the buildings on campus,” he says.
There were also congratulatory telephone calls from political heavyweights such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Senator Cory Booker, who recently sought the Presidential nomination of the U.S. Democratic Party.
He says that he’s appreciative and humbled by the response to his historic milestone but also very thankful to his mentors and all those who’ve supported his academic journey so far.
Johnson told the CONTACT the announcement came as a bit of a surprise because being the valedictorian wasn’t necessarily his goal in pursuit of academic excellence.
“Throughout my time at Princeton I sought to take courses that I was generally interested in … courses that were in (areas) that were applicable to my research and applicable to professional work that I do,” he recounted. “And I sought to develop a proper understanding of the topics…. I sought to develop mastery of those courses. I think the consequences of that work habit led to those outcomes.”
Known to be unflappable and well-organized, Johnson noted that the timing of the announcement did heap additional burden on him trying to manipulate his remaining academic work as well as outstanding projects and unplanned significant demands on his time.
It forced him to lean heavily on his household, his mother, father and sister for their support and guidance.
Three high-powered professionals: his dad, Dr. Dexter Gregory Johnson, who holds degrees in Medicine and Dentistry (MD, DDS), is a Harvard trained board certified Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon who operates two clinics in the Ottawa area. He was born in The Bahamas.
His mother, Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson, is Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at McGill University and the Interim Head of Family Medicine and Secondary Care Division Director at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). She was born in Montreal and raised in Jamaica.
His sister, Anastasia Dextrene Johnson, is an actress and four-time Grammy shortlisted singer who is back at university in New York completing a Master’s degree in Fine Arts.
Johnson says he’s especially grateful to them as he navigated the hectic period leading up to his graduation ceremony and his valedictorian address, which will be delivered virtually this year, due to the coronavirus outbreak, on May 31.
“ They have been great because they have been in some of the interviews, (which) helped alleviate the demands on my time.”
He says he and his sister (whom he has always admired) have been super close.
And she has been especially helpful because she’s the person he calls upon randomly for advice on dealing with a deluge of interest from the media.
“As a singer-songwriter, Anastasia has had a lot of experience when it comes to PR and dealing with the media or adopting a better mindset in terms of time management.
Justifiably proud of his achievements, his parents are united in their conviction that it couldn’t have come to a more deserving person.
“From the beginning, we’ve had a bird’s-eye view of Nicholas’ laser-like focus and insatiable desire for intellectual challenges,” says his mother, Dr. Brown-Johnson. “He has always been in love with learning.”
She says that it was important for her and her husband to nurture his craving for knowledge by providing whatever resources were necessary.
Introducing him to chess was one of those intellectual pursuits. He mastered the game and was the Quebec chess champion for five consecutive years as a teenager. He was also a member of the provincial chess team.
“What’s notable is that he has always had wide ranging interests and that’s why the liberal arts education opportunities provided by Princeton was important to help him make proper (educational and career) choices.
She added that she is not surprised by his decision to enter a discipline that includes applied mathematics and the integration of health sciences and finance.
“He has always been very analytical in his approach to everything in his life.”
A lifelong-high achiever, Johnson, who was born in the Gaspe, where his mother worked as a medical doctor in the field of Geriatrics for over eight years, has been making his parents proud from his first day at Selwyn House School, which he attended from kindergarten to grade 11.
He was also named valedictorian of his high school class before moving on to Marianapolis College, where he remained for a year before opting to attend university.
As an indication of his academic mettle then, Johnson was accepted to five Ivy League universities including Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Brown and Dartmouth. He decided on Princeton.
Once there, he was unstoppable in his drive to excel in his chosen field of study and in his quest to combine academics with on-the-job training.
He was a member of the Princeton Chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018. An involvement through which he supported technical, community, and financial aspects of projects in Peru, Kenya and the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, he served as project manager of the Peru team and as co-leader of the technical components sub-team, co-designing all of the non-pipe components for the gravity fed water delivery system before traveling to Pusanchas, Peru to supervise construction of Phase 1 of the system, which now provides clean water to 120 homes.
Johnson, who also served as president of Princeton’s Chapter of Tau Beta Pi, the oldest engineering honor society in the U.S., later presented the project at the United Nation’s Students Seeking Solutions Sustainable Development conference.
Also he served as Editor of Tortoise – a journal of writing pedagogy, and was a Writing Fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center.
In 2019, he received the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, which is given to the undergraduate who, at the end of the junior (3rd) year, has achieved the highest academic standing for all preceding college work at the university.
Also, he was one of 12 students in Quebec shortlisted for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship this year.
Over the past year or two, Johnson has made significant inroads in his quest to integrate his academics with the workplace.
He worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters, which followed internships at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, where he developed and implemented a novel optimization technique under the supervision of noted Professor Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator.
In June 2019, his project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling, at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences.
He also interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, under the supervision of Dr. Jason Jo and Professor Yoshua Bengio, two highly recognized pioneers of deep machine learning (artificial intelligence).
All of which, he told the CONTACT, lead to him looking forward to his time at MIT and mentorship under Professor Bertsimas, acclaimed for his commitment to scientific research, education and building companies (entrepreneurship) .
Johnson says he is excited to be supervised by a professor who is known to be “a serial entrepreneur” because of the number of ventures he engaged in with PhD students.
He envisions that much of his work will focus on the area of his expertise which includes “the space of analytics and the space of optimization,” with applications in healthcare or in finance.
Beyond the academic and professional implications, it’s not lost on Johnson the symbolism that accompanies him being named the first Black valedictorian of a university where the first nine presidents were slave owners and several of its early benefactors and professors also owned slaves.
Princeton only admitted its first Black student in 1948 and they are still woefully under-represented at 9% of the undergraduate population and 3% of those enrolled in its graduate program.
He says it’s something that he and other Black students on campus thought critically about and how they could help to make the university environment a more inclusive one.
Johnson says the accolades come with a sense of responsibility to family, friends and community and he is acutely aware that his accomplishments have made him a role model to many young Blacks.
“It’s a challenge that I did not ask for but I’m willing to step up to it because I too was inspired by several Black individuals who were in a similar position that I’m in today.
I very much benefited from their mentorship and their guidance and I hope to play a similar role.”
Through it all, he has an over-arching message to Black youth: “Explore your curiosity. Don’t let yourself be intimidated to enter spaces that are dominated by people who do not look like you. Know that there’s an entire community of people who do look like you and who are supporting you and cheering you on… even if you can’t see them.”