Canadian named Princeton's first black valedictorian reflects on pandemic, anti-racism protests in his speech

A Canadian student named the first black valedictorian in Princeton University’s 274-year history used his address to the graduating class to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic and recent anti-racism protests in the U.S.

Montrealer Nicholas Johnson was named valedictorian in April and delivered his speech virtually to Princeton’s class of 2020 on Sunday.

"Today marks a new beginning, with a truly unprecedented challenge… Let us rise to the occasion to make transformative strides in advancing solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Let us fight passionately to ensure that this stressful period of sacrifice will be remembered as a moment in history when diversity of thought, creativity, compassion and bravery conquered fear of a common threat to humankind," Johnson said in his valedictory remarks.

Johnson told CTV's Your Morning on Monday that he wrote his speech approximately three weeks ago and focused it around the idea that building communities, relationships, traditions and innovative algorithms is the best way to add value to the world.

"The class of 2020 is really graduating into a world that faces significant challenges," Johnson said in an interview. "It's very easy to feel paralyzed in the face of a sense of powerlessness, given this whole environment that myself and my classmates are entering. I really hoped to inspire them to not fall victim to that feeling and to really have the courage to use their skills, use their experiences to play their role in building a better future."

Johnson said he wrote the speech with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, but his words can also be taken in context of recent anti-racism protests demanding justice for Minnesota's George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for several minutes.

"There is a legacy of systemic racism that has consistently worked to endanger and take lives away from black people. Canada has a very different legacy in history than the United States and racism manifests itself very differently in Canada than the United States, but the fact of the matter is that racism does also exist in Canada and has also caused black people to lose lives following encounters with police," Johnson said.

Johnson said the protests make his achievement as Princeton's first black valedictorian even more significant given Princeton’s history of slave ownership.

"I empathize with the feelings of frustration of the protesters and these are feelings that are shared by many black people around the world, and many allies of black safety in society," Johnson said.

Founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, the school's first nine presidents all owned slaves and enslaved people lived at the president's residence until at least 1822, according to the Princeton and Slavery Project.

Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was among one of the first people to congratulate Johnson on his historic feat.

"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 you continue to achieve," Obama tweeted.

Johnson said it was "inspiring to see her support" for his journey thus far.

"Michelle Obama is a Princeton alum with who I've looked up to as a source of inspiration throughout my journey and to see her recognize what I've done, that truly, truly made my day and my week," Johnson said.

Now, Johnson said he wants to be someone other students look up to.

"I really hope that now I can be a source of inspiration for younger students who are witnessing this event, similarly to how former First Lady Michelle Obama has influenced me," Johnson said.

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