A historic moment will take place when Princeton University holds a virtual commencement on May 31. That's thanks to Nicholas Johnson, who has become the first Black valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-year history.

According to the university, Johnson earned the honor as an operations research and financial engineering student. The Montreal native focused his thesis on developing algorithms to curb obesity in Canada, writing a paper titled “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic.”

Johnson also conducted research on social distancing guidelines designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"It feels empowering. Being Princeton's first Black Valedictorian holds special significance to me particularly given Princeton's historical ties to the institution of slavery," Johnson told CNN. "I hope that this achievement motivates and inspires younger Black students, particularly those interested in STEM fields."

The Princeton student has had a chance to take advantage of international internships, traveling to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. But his favorite moments are the late nights he spent with his peers.

“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,” he said in a statement.

There's a lot more ahead for Johnson. The valedictorian is still striving to earn certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, as well as applications of computing. It could be a busy summer for the Princeton student as he plans to intern as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group. 

According to the university, the researcher has another ongoing project "in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion."

Johnson plans to begin his Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next fall. The Montreal man thanks mentors such as William Massey, who is the Edwin S. Wilsey professor of operations research and financial engineering. He also credits Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, an African American studies professor for pushing him to strive for academic excellence. 

“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.”

Johnson's long resume includes his work as editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. Additionally, he served as a residential college adviser as a member of Whitman College.

In 2018, the valedictorian served as co-president of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He bolstered his resume as a senior when he worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google's headquarters in California. 

Johnson also has a long list of accolades, becoming a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, earning the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering and being recognized as co-recipient of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award. 

After being elected to Tau Beta Pi in 2018 and serving as president of the Princeton chapter, Johnson was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 2019.  

Johnson said it's disappointing to not be able to celebrate as a class together because of the coronavirus, but he is thankful for the school's commitment "to hosting an in-person commencement for my class in Spring 2021 to celebrate our achievements."

"I have been comforted to see how well my friends and classmates have adapted to these challenging times and have ensured that Princeton's strong community persists virtually despite our physical separation from one another," he told CNN.