When Nicholas Johnson played Monopoly with his family, the outcome was always the same: He won.
“He drives everyone into bankruptcy,” said his father, Dexter Gregory Johnson, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
Johnson’s accolades have only grown broader. This month, the Canadian-born Johnson, 22, whose areas of study are operations research, financial engineering, and analytics, was named Princeton University’s first black valedictorian in the school’s 274-year history.
The news attracted widespread attention, and kudos rolled in from high places.
“This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick!” tweeted Michelle Obama.
He also heard from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Oprah Winfrey and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“It’s been great to see how much support such influential figures have been giving me,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from Montreal. “These are many figures who have been inspirations … in my journey thus far … I really strive to have similar impact, similar influence, on people who might now be looking up to me.”
He said he’s proud to be the first black valedictorian given Princeton’s historical ties to slavery, with nine former presidents having owned them, and with the school’s efforts to address the past in recent years.
The university in 2018 named spaces on campus for slaves prominent in Princeton’s past and last year unveiled a 39-foot-tall sculpture, Double Sights, with quotes highlighting the positive and negative aspects of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton president whose name is on the School of Public and International Affairs. The school several years ago was under pressure to remove Wilson’s name, given his racist views and policies, including keeping black students from enrolling at Princeton when he headed it from 1902 to 1910.
Johnson said Princeton, compared with peer institutions also coming to terms with historical racist ties, has done a good job addressing the past and making sure it isn’t covered up.
“I do think it needs to keep pushing forward and keep breaking new barriers in some sense with respect to the action it takes in acknowledging that history and in being supportive to minority students on campus,” he said.
Johnson called his experience at Princeton “transformational.” He relished late-night conversations with peers about the beliefs and cultures in which they were raised, access to resources that helped with his academic research and the opportunity to study internationally. including trips to Peru, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.
He relishes looking for solutions to complex problems. Much of his analytics research has centered on health care and finance, but he sees broader applications in the future.
“One of the reasons I embrace analytics as a discipline is that applications exist in any sector that has access to a significant amount of data, and in our world, that is effectively all sectors,” he said.
Johnson’s parents said he has been a dedicated student from the start, always looking for more assignments and opportunities to grow, with interests that varied from the sciences to academic writing and the arts.
“He was always challenging himself,” said his mother, Anita Brown-Johnson, a physician and assistant professor at McGill University, as well as interim chief of its health center’s department of family medicine. “It would come from within.”
Johnson taught himself how to play chess and mastered it, and his bedroom is filled with trophies. He also plays the tenor saxophone and basketball, though he’s laid off the sport in recent years after tearing a ligament. He has strong ties to the Bahamas and Jamaica, where his father was born and his mother grew up. And he also looks up to his older sister, Anastasia Dextrene Syrillia Johnson, a performing artist who produced her first album in 2018.
He was valedictorian of the private boys’ school he attended in Canada, where his interest in STEM subjects was nurtured.
When he entered Princeton, he told his parents he intended to graduate summa cum laude. Then his first year, he called home and said a course he was taking in thermodynamics was the most difficult he ever had. He got an A-plus anyway, his father said. And the A’s just kept coming.
In the fall, he plans to pursue his doctoral degree in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But first he will address Princeton’s 1,800 graduates during a virtual commencement Sunday.