Aside from 2020 being the first time the commencement address at Princeton was delivered exclusively over the internet, Nicholas Johnson’s speech Sunday made it extra newsworthy because he’s the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, the Canadian student has studied statistics and machine learning, along with computational mathematics, and computing.

The engineer said that knowing what to build in order to improve the world is the crucial first step. “It requires an intimate familiarity and engagement with the present state of the world, coupled with the capacity to unabashedly dream of a distinctly different future.”

Speaking from his home in Montreal, he also quoted Michelle Obama from the graduating class of ’85.

“It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once—to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

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