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Princeton’s First Black Valedictorian



Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020.

Johnson is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history.

He said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests. The University’s support through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were especially significant, Johnson said. But most of all, he treasures his relationships with his classmates.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time spent with close friends and classmates engaging in stimulating discussions — often late at night — about our beliefs, the cultures and environments in which we were raised, the state of the world, and how we plan on contributing positively to it in our own unique way,” Johnson said.

Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall 2020.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, he is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learningapplied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

His research has focused primarily on sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations that must be made given the increasing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

His senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.

This work, supervised by Miklos Racz, assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Johnson has another ongoing research project supervised by Yacine Ait-Sahalia, the Otto A. Hack ’03 Professor of Finance and professor of economics, in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.

During his junior year, Johnson conducted an independent research project, “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” supervised by Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering, in which he developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives. He presented this work at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

Among his other professors, William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, were also influential.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences. Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

He previously interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head. He presented the project at Princeton’s inaugural Day of Optimization in October 2018 and at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences in June 2019, where his project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling.

Johnson has interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, and he participated in Whitman’s exchange program with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March 2017.

Among his academic honors, Johnson is 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. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

Johnson is a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.

By Denise Valente, Princeton University, Office of Communications

Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

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Black Life Texas

PepsiCo Fighting Food Insecurity at HBCUs



Almost 40% of HBCU students report being food insecure, a statistic that carries more weight as many campuses encounter record attendance rates this semester, according to data released this year from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

PepsiCo is announcing a $250,000 donation or $50,000 each to help fight food insecurity across five Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs. The campuses are Prairie View A&M University, Morgan State University, Florida A&M University, Jackson State University, and Bethune-Cookman University. This donation is part of PepsiCo’s larger HBCU Tour to celebrate, inspire and recruit HBCU students.

Tailored to each university’s needs, the donation from PepsiCo is designed to support each campus’s unique efforts to help students who struggle to balance the cost of their education and their next meal. With the rate of food insecurity among college students growing nationally, those at HBCUs are historically impacted the most.

Across the five campuses, the grants will support more than 37,500 students facing food insecurity by funding on-campus food pantry supplies and groceries, meal plans for homeless students, workshops for cooking and meal prep, stipends for student staff within the pantries, and more. In addition, PepsiCo will also supply free meals for approximately 2,000 students at select universities during their respective winter finals weeks in December.

“As a longtime supporter of HBCUs, PepsiCo has always aimed to help students thrive, both on campus and beyond. This year, our HBCU Tour continues to celebrate each universities’ rich culture and recognize the wealth of talent on campus while also addressing the barriers students can face in completing their education,” said Kent Montgomery, senior vice president of Industry Relations and Multicultural Development, PepsiCo. “Our donation to tackle food insecurity is another example of our commitment to empower students and ensure their success in every aspect of their educational journey.”

The funds will be distributed to Prairie View A&M University, Florida A&M University, Morgan State University, Jackson State University and Bethune-Cookman University during key university events throughout November, including the SWAC and Florida Classic games on November 18.

In addition to bringing authentic and engaging experiences to students and alumni this football season, they will also show up to support students throughout the semester with recruiting efforts, including on-campus events, intimate dinners highlighting local businesses, and the opportunity to engage with PepsiCo leadership– inspiring the next generation of diverse talent.

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Inaugural Convening of the Male Teachers of Color Collaborative Calls for Change



City Education Partners’ Male Teacher of Color Collaborative held its inaugural convening, Bold Direction Towards Representation, on Saturday, July 29. Over 100 local educators of color and other education leaders gathered for the groundbreaking convening to shine a light on the underrepresentation and positive impact of male teachers of color in local classrooms. Through dynamic discussions and collaboration, attendees explored innovative strategies and best practices to increase male teachers of color representation and impact.

Over the last year, the City Education Partners has partnered with a group of dynamic male teachers of color to form the Male Teacher of Color Collaborative.

“It is vital that young boys of color in San Antonio schools are able to see themselves in their teachers,” said City Education Partners CEO Dalia Flores Contreras. “Research has shown that male students of color who have the opportunity to learn from someone who looks like them benefit socially and academically, but less than 20% of our teacher workforce are males of color. The 11 members of this collaborative are K-12 teachers from all types of schools who are uniting across the campuses to champion a positive change.”

City Education Partners (CEP) is committed to helping create a vibrant educational ecosystem in San Antonio, where public schools thrive and every child has an educational experience that prepares them to shape their own future.

One way the nonprofit aims to do this is through its teacher and leader talent pipeline strategy. They believe that every classroom needs an excellent teacher and every school needs a strong leader. CEP works in partnership with school operators and related organizations to fund programs that attract and retain teachers, as well as those who work to elevate teaching as a highly valued and desirable profession.

Keynote speakers at the convening included three-time GRAMMY-nominated musician SaulPaul, Founder of the Center for Black Educator Development Sharif El-Mekki, and the Board Chair of Essence Preparatory Public School Brian Dillard.

“I believe in revolutionizing education by dramatically increasing the number of Black educators so that low-income Black and other disenfranchised students can reap the full benefits of a quality public education,” said Keynote speaker Sharif El-Mekki, Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. “The Fellowship – Black Educators for Social Justice is dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. We applaud what City Education Partners is doing to increase representation so students are better served.”

This Collaborative is designed to inform and advocate for a restored teacher pipeline with strong male teachers of color representation for our students. For more information about City Education Partners and its Male Teachers of Color Collaborative, visit

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Black Life Texas

Education Bias Hurting Our Kids



By Caleb Alexander

Merry Graduation! Happy Matriculation! I never know what to call it, but it is my absolute favorite time of the year. I love seeing all the graduation pictures, from high school to college, to grad school. I love seeing the college acceptance letters, the robes, the degrees, the ceremonies, I love all of it. To me, this is Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween rolled into one. To me, this is Black Excellence.

While I love this time of year, when my people get to shine and show off their years of hard work, dedication, and academic achievement, to others, this is a time of anger, weeping, frustration, and anger.  It is a time for pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth, they hate these displays of Black excellence as much as I love them. 

By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with Florida and Texas trying to outdo each other with the assault on all things Black. Don’t be surprised if either legislature puts through a bill banning nighttime; yes, they’ve become just that obsessively retarded. The Texas Senate has just introduced Senate Bill 518, which mandates that Texas universities consider standardized test scores such as the SAT and ACT for college admissions. This comes after the Texas House passed legislation to ban DEI initiatives on Texas university and college campuses.

The reason that this is important is because it is well documented that there is an inherent bias in standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, and that minority students underperform on these tests. According to a recent study by Fordham University, the average ACT composite score is 20. Asian students on average, scored 24.9, while Black students averaged 16.3.  In addition to the inherent racial bias in the test, there are other disparities that cause achievement gaps as well. Access to good health care, access to good schools, access to good teachers; all these things play a part in the divergence of test scores. We live in an age where Black children are three times more likely to grow up in low-income communities and in school systems where they have been the victim of interest convergence. Interest convergence is when the dominant party, who most likely controls the school boards and therefore controls the allocation of resources, steers the best equipment, best teachers, newest equipment, and most of the resources to kids of their community. 

Additionally, Texas has surpassed California as having the most R1 top-tier research universities in the country. In other words, Texas’ higher education is now the cream of the crop. As of 2022, The University of Texas had an endowment of over $43 billion, second only to Harvard. And if oil prices surge, that endowment could surpass Harvard’s, once again making the UT school system the wealthiest on the planet. The Texas A&M system had an endowment of over $18 billion. Texas is where you want to get your higher education, but those attacking DEI, and mandating that universities consider test scores from racially biased exams, are hell-bent on not letting our children get into these schools. 

So, as the season of Black excellence in education descends upon us, let’s celebrate our achievements while keeping a wary eye on the folks who are trying to deny our kids the opportunity to continue to get their shine on. Merry Matriculation! Feliz Graduation! I’ll figure it out one day…

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