An MIT Alumni Association Publication

From Dropout to Double Major (with a Few Decades in Between)

  • Julie Fox
  • Slice of MIT
  • 5

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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. 

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Margaret Turek

Sat, 09/28/2019 4:14pm

As a member of the class of 1972, I remember there were about 60 of us in our class. The number had just been increased because the second tower of McCormick had just opened. I find it very unlikely that there were 80 women in the class of 1970. I think the number 80 is more likely to refer to the total number of undergraduate women at that time.

Richard Norwood

Sat, 09/28/2019 5:17pm

As I recall there were 9 women and roughly 900 men in my entering class of 1955

Scott Causbie

Sun, 09/29/2019 11:15am

Ron, definitely others have had those dreams of not attending class, not finishing that project, not knowing the material on the test, but always walking up knowing it was just as dream. Way to get that monkey off your back, and good timing too because red jacket reunion is coming up! You will still maybe have that dream, but when you wake up you can smile ?.

Janet Mertz

Mon, 09/30/2019 12:39am

I was a member of the class of 1971. My class consisted of 950 males and 50 females. The 1st-year females were crammed into tower I of McCormick Hall while tower II was being completed. Tower II opened in time for spring semester of 1968. I think the class of 1970 had ~30 female students.

Edward Gardner

Wed, 10/02/2019 1:40pm

Come on people, we're the original nerds (or is that gnurds :-), we can do better. Google "mit undergraduate class size <year>", all but the year auto-completes. One of the top results is MIT Bulletin containing the President's report for that year. Only hard part was realizing one wants the year we were admitted, not year of graduation.
Report for 1968 page 555 shows table for classes 1968 through 1972, 63 women in class of 1972. Later reports (1969 page 582, 1972 page 234) show 65 women in class of 1972, so there were two late admissions.
Report for 1968 says second McCormick tower actually opened for spring 1967-68. Sometimes called by occupants as the "Katherine Dexter School for Girls" :-).

Edward A. Gardner, '72