May 28, 2020 1:05 PM EDT

Nicholas Johnson is Princeton’s first black valedictorian, an empowering achievement, he says in a video series TIME is producing with Katie Couric.

In the video above, Johnson speaks with Couric about how Princeton’s historical ties to slavery shaped his feelings about being named valedictorian.

Johnson is graduating at the top of a class whose members are entering a world made even more uncertain by the COVID-19 pandemic. As he gets ready to address his classmates on May 31, Johnson says he hopes to inspire them not to feel powerless.

“Have faith. This too will pass,” he says. “Just as many challenging events before us have passed.”

“I think being the first black valedictorian is an extremely significant event,” he says. “The fact that it has taken so long for there to be a black valedictorian also speaks to how much work still needs to be done. Ideally we need to strive for a world where this type of achievement is more normalized.”

Established in 1746, Princeton University is among the oldest higher-education institutes in the United States. As Johnson notes in the video, the first nine presidents of Princeton, as well as several professors, enslaved black people. Black students were not admitted to the school until 1942.

This interview is part of a special series produced in collaboration with Katie Couric. See more from TIME Reports with Katie Couric, and sign up for her weekday morning newsletter Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric.

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com.

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