2020 Valedictory remarks by Nicholas Johnson for virtual Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 31
I am truly humbled by this honor and privilege of addressing you, Princeton’s Great Class of 2020 on this very significant day in our lives. I find it hard to imagine that four years have passed since we first walked through FitzRandolph Gate together. We have learned an incredible amount since then through classes, research, community engagement, international experiences and friendships. More importantly, we have learned that we have far more to learn. As an operations research concentrator, I cannot help but ponder the probability of me addressing our class today, virtually, from my home in Montreal. To Princeton, our mentors and relatives, thank you for inspiring us to believe in the improbable.
During freshmen summer, I traveled to Peru with Princeton’s Engineers Without Borders Peru Team to construct a water distribution system in Pusunchas, a community of roughly 100 families without access to a reliable source of clean water. We spent the summer building – literally. We dug trenches, laid PVC pipe and built various concrete structures, working alongside community partners. I will never forget the feelings of pride, happiness and amazement we shared when, at the end of summer, water flowed tens of kilometers from the source capture, located in the soaring mountains to the first tap stand we had built at a house on the hillside. What made this experience so memorable for me was the opportunity to contribute to building something tangible, using skills developed at our new home away from home, and witnessing firsthand the profound impact on the community’s quality of life. It was reminiscent of the sense of wonder, anticipation and exhilaration I experienced when first challenged to solve a Rubik’s cube. At that moment, I embraced building as a vehicle of progress and bridge to a better future.
I believe that “building” is the best way to create and deliver value to the world. Building is not restricted to the creation of tangible objects. Together, we have built communities, relationships, traditions, innovative algorithms and lasting memories. Building is fundamentally a means to serve humanity. When I reflect on our collective accomplishments, I feel confident that each of us possesses the ability to build and to create. After all, we each made it through our Senior Thesis!
Identifying what needs to be built is inherently harder – and arguably of greater importance – than specifying how something is built. It is the first step one takes in creating the future and requires an intimate familiarity and engagement with the present state of the world coupled with a capacity to unabashedly dream of a distinctly different future. In the words of Michelle Obama, of the Class of 1985, “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.” I challenge each of us to develop our own unique answer to the question “what needs to be built?” and to revise our answers as we continue to learn. Think critically about what needs to be built in the world, build it, and never stop learning.
Today marks a new beginning, with a truly unprecedented challenge. COVID-19 has taken too many lives, disrupted daily life and forced us to re-evaluate our structures and functions within society. My heart aches for all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. This new disease is not going to disappear quickly and it will likely give rise to a “new” normal. 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. With perseverance, we will overcome. More than ever, let us build a better normal. Meanwhile, let us look forward to the promise of Act 2 in person next Spring! Congratulations Class of 2020!