By FARRAH JOHNSON
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday added her own tribute to the son of a Bahamian doctor who has made history by becoming the first black valedictorian at Princeton University.
Nicholas Johnson, 22, an operations research and financial engineering major, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020. This makes him the first student of African descent to earn the prestigious title in the Ivy League institution’s 274-year history.
After news of Nicholas’ achievement broke Mrs Obama issued a statement on social media which read: “This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick! Congratulations on becoming valedictorian - and making history. I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you, and I cannot wait to see everything yoiu continue to achieve.”
Nicholas’ father, Dr Dexter Johnson, is a Bahamian who currently practices medicine in Ottawa, Canada. He told The Tribune his family was proud of his son for his monumental achievement.
“When Princeton gave him this award we kind of suspected — because we knew Princeton’s history— he was the first black person, but we weren’t sure,” Dr Johnson said.
“It wasn’t confirmed until a week ago when Princeton called him back and told him they had searched their archives high and low looking for another black valedictorian and he was indeed the first one in their history. So we were all ecstatic and the news just went viral.”
Dr Johnson said it took a village to get his son to the position he was in now and emphasised how proud he is of his Bahamian roots.
“I’m a Bahamian with roots going back to Cat Island. I spent the first six years of my life in Arthur’s Town with my grandmother and at the age of seven I moved back to Nassau with my other sister. I went to Oakes Field Primary and then on to St Anne’s High School and then did my A-levels at St John’s.
“After St John’s, I went off and studied at McGill University. I did my undergraduate in my dental degree there and then I went on to New York Medical College to do my medical degree. So with all of this, it was a pleasure to get to this point where my wife and I would have someone like Nicholas, who then takes things to the next level just smashing barriers.”
Dr Johnson said he believed his son’s accomplishment was a great story for a “small country like The Bahamas,” because it could inspire others to strive for greatness.
“I’d like this story to inspire the youth of the country in particular the young black men,” he said. “Bahamians are very proud people and it’s just great to know that it took one of our own to finally kick that door down after 274 years. And it’s really an accomplishment standing on the shoulders of many others. My wife’s family are of Jamaican descent, my family are of Bahamian descent and so indeed it takes a village.”
He said his son is an exceptional young man.
“He was the valedictorian at his high school and he also got into quite a few undergraduate schools. All of the Ivy Leagues took him and again when he applied for his PHd he actually got into Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Berkley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and they were all offering him full funded scholarships.”
Dr Johson’s wife, Dr Anita Brown-Johnson, is a medical practitioner of West Indian descent.
She told The Tribune they were “overjoyed” when they first heard that Nicholas was going to be the valedictorian. “We feel so very grateful for all who have contributed to paving the path to make this possible,” she said.
“Quite frankly, we recognise Nicholas to be a very disciplined, diligent and gifted child from earlier on so we are delighted with the achievement and we also feel so grateful for our forefathers and all of their sacrifices that have led to Nicholas’ achievements as well as our own.”
Dr Brown-Johnson described Nicholas as a “very humble guy.” When asked to describe her son’s initial reaction to receiving the news, she said: “He has had numerous accomplishments along the way and he’s someone who doesn’t even mention it. If we don’t ask, he sometimes doesn’t even think to tell us. That’s the kind of person he is.
“But this particular news we knew was very well received by him. When he was sharing the news with us you could see the sense of pride and joy. So truly he could not conceal his excitement so we were very happy for him.”
Nicholas himself told the New York Times: “Being Princeton’s first black valedictorian is very empowering, especially given its historical ties to the institution of slavery. I hope this achievement serves as inspiration to black students coming up behind me.”
In 2017, Nicholas participated in Whitman’s exchange programme with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence and co-recipient with Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award.
In Fall 2019, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019. Mr Johnson is also a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College in Quebec, Canada.
This summer, Nicholas will intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D E Shaw Group before beginning his PhD studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in fall 2020.