From Dropout to Double Major (with a Few Decades in Between)
Slice of MIT
Have you ever had a dream that you were running late for school? Or maybe you forgot to study for an exam? For Ron Searls ’70, it’s a recurring dream about missing drop date at MIT—the last day you can remove a current class from your record with no penalty. Almost four decades after taking his last class at MIT, the academic anxiety followed him because, in the end, he left to start a job in computer programming without finishing his final thesis and therefore never graduated.
Although the unfinished business stuck with him, it wasn’t until he read a Slice of MIT article in Tech Connection that Searls realized he could complete his degree. The story was about an alum from his same program who had done the same.
“For the longest time after I left, I thought there was no way to do it, so I didn’t even think about it. The story explained that MIT changed their undergraduate [Course 6] thesis requirements, which is why I also had not finished, so that’s what rang the bell for me.”
Searls sent in a letter for his reapplication soon after and set about completing the thesis he had originally started in 1977 on reversible computing, a topic that is still relevant today. Searls graduated in 2015 with two degrees. He originally enrolled at MIT in 1966 with the Class of 1970 and studied philosophy before leaving in 1971, returning in 1974 to study computer science and engineering. When he left in 1977, unbeknownst to him, he had completed enough general requirements to have finished his philosophy degree, but he still needed to complete the final project to earn his computer science and engineering degree.
Although it was short lived, Searls loved being back on campus. “Everybody was 50 years younger than I was,” Searls laughs, saying that of course things had changed, but often in positive ways. “I think in the Class of 1970 there were only 80 women, and now the campus is so much more diverse. I loved walking down the Infinite Corridor seeing many women, and people from all over the world.”
After graduating in 2015 and walking in the ceremony that he regretted missing for so many years, Searls—who spent his career in computer programming, co-founding two startups and getting three software patents—retired six months later. Today, Searls spends a lot of his time writing poetry (his first book of poems was recently published), which he says is something that he came away from MIT with—in addition to many lifelong friendships. Now he’s gained something else from the Institute: closure.
“I was getting to the end of my career, and I’d always regretted the fact that I didn’t get the degree. My entire professional career I had to be careful on my resume to state that, although I had attended MIT twice, I had never graduated. It was always this cloud of unfinished business which hung over me, the failure of my younger self. By finally getting my degree, I could put that ancient trauma behind me. In that sense, it was something that I did for myself.”
Photo (top): Searls and his daughter at Commencement.