×

Jim Kenyon: A strong finish for Quechee Dartmouth student with blue-collar background

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford High School graduate and Dartmouth College senior Tyler Searles, 22, of White River Junction, prepares measures of the enzyme trypsin for culturing cells in a Norris Cotton Cancer Center lab where researchers are studying the T-cell response to melanoma in mice in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, June 5, 2019. Searles is in training to work full time in the lab following his graduation with a bachelors degree in engineering and biology on Sunday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, June 08, 2019

When I met Tyler Searles in September 2015, he was tossing 50-pound bags of garbage into a dump truck. Just days away from moving into his freshman dorm at Dartmouth, Searles was helping his parents with their trash collection and recycling business.

On Sunday, the 22-year-old Searles will graduate from Dartmouth with a degree in engineering science. Catching up with Searles last week, I was glad to see four years at Dartmouth — where, as the saying goes, many students were born on third base and think they hit a triple — hadn’t changed him all that much. He still had his blue-collar work ethic and commitment to his parents.

“They’ve done a lot for me,” he said. “I still want to do what I can for them.”

That meant going home to Quechee on weekends to change the oil, fix the brakes and make other repairs on the family’s trash compactor truck. Searles, who started racing go-carts at age 7 and competed in the limited late-model division at Claremont Speedway last summer, has always been mechanically minded and willing to get his hands dirty.

He didn’t mention it (his mother, Beth-Anne, did later), but two years ago, his dad, Mike, underwent hand surgery and couldn’t do any heavy lifting for a while. Tyler gave up his December break from school to take over his dad’s trash route.

“He does everything he can to help us,” his mother told me. “He’ll fill in wherever we need him.”

If there’s such a thing as a typical Dartmouth student, I’m fairly certain that Searles isn’t it. He didn’t join a fraternity.

“Even in high school, I didn’t go to parties that much,” he said.

And somehow he managed to make it through Hanover winters without the benefit of a $900 Canada Goose parka.

Just over 50% of Dartmouth students receive no financial aid, which usually means their families are picking up the tab — nearly $71,000 this year. (The Canada Goose jacket is extra.)

It’s hard not to notice Dartmouth’s wealth gap, Searles said, but he didn’t get caught up in the college’s socioeconomic trappings. He felt more comfortable hunting, fishing and camping with his dad and younger brother, Trevor, than hanging out at frat parties.

“Tyler stayed true to himself,” his mother said. “He’s just a well-rounded kid.”

Searles, who leaves Dartmouth with a 3.0 GPA, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in a couple of years and a career in biotechnology research.

As I wrote in 2015, Searles’ story has an American-dream quality. At Hartford High School, he was class valedictorian and captain of the football team. His SAT scores placed him in the 95th percentile, nationally.

But Dartmouth is loaded with smart kids. Of the 20,000 high school graduates who apply annually, only about 10% are accepted. When he was at Hartford High, family members told his parents that he shouldn’t even bother to apply to Dartmouth.

“You’ll never get in,” they said.

Then there was the matter of paying for an Ivy League education. In 2015, Dartmouth was running $67,000 a year and climbing annually.

Beth-Anne and Mike had started More Waste Solutions out of their home in 2009. Beth-Anne handled the business side of the small operation while Mike put in 12-hour days picking up trash and recyclables at homes throughout the Upper Valley. On Saturdays, the couple and their two sons worked at the Thetford transfer station, collecting residents’ trash in their truck and bringing it to the Lebanon landfill.

When they weren’t helping their dad, Tyler and Trevor, who recently earned a two-year technical college degree in auto body repair, mowed lawns with their mother. (With More Waste Solutions having grown to more than 500 commercial and residential customers, the family has gotten out of the lawn-maintenance business.)

The University of Vermont offered Searles an academic scholarship that included free tuition. His family, however, would still have had to pay a big share of his living expenses.

After he was accepted at Dartmouth, Searles learned the college would “meet 100% of the demonstrated need of all financial aid applicants.”

Too often Dartmouth comes across as — to borrow a familiar phrase used to describe elite colleges — a hedge fund with a library. But one of the advantages of amassing a $5.5 billion endowment is there’s money available to help deserving students from working-class families.

At Dartmouth, 48% of its 4,400 undergraduates receive some financial aid. Under Dartmouth’s formula, Searles and his parents had to pay about $3,500 a year.

Searles covered much of his share through a work-study job at the Montshire Museum of Science, where he did everything from installing exhibits to mowing lawns.

“Tyler is a great young man and a very hard worker,” said Gary Collins, the Norwich museum’s facilities manager. “We will certainly miss having him around.”

Searles thought of himself as the Montshire’s “handyman,” but the museum’s staff said he undersold himself. “His intellect, quantitative reasoning skills, utilization of critical thinking and attention to detail have made him an invaluable asset,” said Thomas White, assistant facilities manager. “His friendly demeanor and positive attitude are greatly appreciated by all who work with him.”

Four years at Dartmouth did lead to a few changes. Searles has bulked up a bit, started wearing glasses, and has his first serious girlfriend, a Colby-Sawyer College student whom he met through his brother’s fiancee.

Academically, Dartmouth was also an adjustment. “The first term was pretty rough,” he told me. In high school, he’d go to class, take notes and do his homework. His lowest grade was an A-minus.

At Dartmouth, “you have to learn the material so much faster,” he said, referring to the amount of ground that was covered in 10-week terms. He took a heavy dose of biology classes, which along with his other science courses meant he had up to three labs a term.

His most difficult class: Organic chemistry. “That’s when I definitely knew I couldn’t be a doctor,” he joked.

This spring, he landed a job at a research lab at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon. He plans to live at home while working at the lab before applying to graduate school.

He leaves Dartmouth debt-free, which not a lot of college graduates from working-class families can say these days.

“It’s definitely worked out,” said Searles, who is the first in his family with a four-year college degree. “You can’t beat the education that I’ve received and what it’s cost. I’ve been pretty lucky.”

On Thursday, when many of his Dartmouth classmates were getting in a last bit of frivolity in Hanover, Searles went home to mow his parents’ lawn. He also might have brought home some laundry for his mother to wash, which he’s been known to do from time to time during the last four years.

I guess that makes him a typical college student in one regard.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.