Valedictorian Nicholas Johnson speaks at the 2020 Commencement

Nicholas Johnson Valedictory Remarks for Class of 2020 On-Campus Commencement

Valedictorian Nicholas Johnson speaking at the on-campus Class of 2020 Commencement on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

This address was given by Nicholas Johnson, the Class of 2020 valedictorian, during the class Commencement ceremony in Princeton Stadium on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. 

Remarks as prepared

Hello everyone, welcome! It is so great to see you all. I want to start off by thanking all the friends and families who made the trip and made the time to be here today. It is so special for us graduates to share this moment with you  —  with the people who supported us, who believed in us, and who continue to be such a big part of our lives. I also want to extend a sincere thank you to the faculty and staff for making today happen and for making our time at Princeton so transformative. Thank you.

We are the first graduating Princeton Class to have not one, but two Commencement ceremonies  —  and it’s an immense privilege for me to be addressing you for the second time as your valedictorian. The honor of being Princeton’s first Black valedictorian is very dear to me and I wish to open doors for others in the same way that doors have been so graciously opened for me by Black leaders and other mentors throughout my life.

Like many of you, today marks my first return to campus in more than two years. And in the time since I was last here, I have thought a lot about our time at Princeton and what it meant to me and to us.

Those 24 months have acted as a filter on my memories, magnifying the most impactful experiences, while obfuscating others  —  and in its wake, this filtering has left a refined appreciation of how special our four years at Princeton truly were.

One experience that has stood the test of time is the Freshman Writing Seminar, the first shared academic experience that we all struggled with but, nevertheless, managed to overcome. I wrote my R3 on the legacy of the Residential School System in Canada. For those of you in the audience who may not be aware or who may have blocked Writing Seminar from your memory and need a refresher, R3 is the final research project and substantial piece of writing that all Freshmen produce in their Writing Seminar.

As I reflect specifically on the many hours spent working on my R3, what stands out are the countless conversations I had with my Professor and fellow classmates that challenged my understanding of my topic and pushed me to further refine my thinking. At some moment during that process of working on R3, my primary motivation pivoted from merely wanting to do well to wanting to discover and understand something new, and that’s something my peers helped me achieve. I cultivated lifelong friendships in that writing seminar. Friendships rooted in academic curiosity and that stretched far beyond the classroom. 

Beyond encouraging me to find my voice as a writer and laying the foundation for future independent work at Princeton, one of the biggest takeaways from my Writing Seminar was the importance of committing to the pursuit of knowledge. It is imperative that a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge extends far beyond Writing Seminars and academic work into all aspects of our life’s work. 

Two years ago, when I spoke at our virtual Commencement from my home in Montreal, dans la belle province du Québec, I talked about “building” as the best way to create value in the world. Now, this is still true today.

But I think it’s even more important to appreciate how the pursuit of knowledge is intimately related to creating value. It is only through such pursuit that we, as builders, can develop a holistic appreciation for what most urgently needs to be changed in our world  —  and also refine our understanding of how certain innovations may adversely affect marginalized communities when not carried out thoughtfully. Leaders have a duty to think creatively about the pursuit of knowledge, and I believe that cultivating communities with diverse voices is key to this pursuit. 

We live in a world where it has never been so easy to access information on any topic, and yet so many of us find ourselves in echo chambers. A world where our attention is routinely manipulated or hijacked by self-serving agents. After being isolated for so long, many of us are starved for community. And far too many falsely believe that it can only be found in familiar places. 

We’ve been given the tools to connect with the world, to access its knowledge, yet too many of us choose to surround ourselves with more of what we already know. With more of who we already are. People who think like us, who look like us. People who come from the same places and went to the same schools. 

The world desperately needs leaders who dare to listen to and empathize with those whose views differ from their own. Leaders who will commit to the crusade that is the pursuit of knowledge. I believe that we  —  the Great Class of 2020  —  are such leaders. 

Though it was not pleasant, we have been tested  —  by the pandemic yes, but also by the many challenges each one of us had to overcome to be here today, and due to our collective experience, we now possess an extra level of preparedness. 

I’m an operations research concentrator. I like to think that I appreciate randomness and uncertainty more than most  —  but even that could not have prepared me for our abrupt departure from campus in March 2020 during our senior spring. During the ensuing global health crisis, and time of renewed, heightened national and international dialogue on the topic of race, we stepped up as a Class  —  we maintained and continued to build our community virtually, we supported one another through grief, heartache and distress, and, ultimately, we persevered in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Look at us now. 

In a few moments, we will leave campus for the first time through FitzRandolph Gate. As we enter the world, my hope is that we all commit ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Not only is this something that we ought to do, but it is something that we absolutely must do to fully realize our ambition to create value in the world.

Congratulations Class of 2020!