Considering the amount of work required for students to enter the Harvard bubble, those who step away from the College before graduation are often regarded with a sort of mystified confusion. However, the stories of success remind us that sometimes stepping away from one world is the only way to excel in another. Examining surprising and lesser-known Harvard dropouts, it’s clear that creativity and innovative thinking are hardly symptomatic of a college education.
R. Buckminster Fuller, Class of 1917
The name “Buckminster” has developed into Harvard slang for getting Peet’s coffee from the cafe in the LISE building that bears his name. R. Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, philosopher, and writer best-known for his larger-than-life spherical creations and ecological focus in his artwork.
Born in 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts, Fuller harbored an early love for the outdoors and invention, a passion curated through summers spent outside on Bear Island in Maine. Fuller left Harvard when he was only a freshman, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, after “excessively socializing and missing his midterms exams.” The BFI continues by stating that despite returning to Harvard again in 1915, he was “again dismissed.”
Following his expulsions, Fuller served in the Navy from 1917-19 and was even “nominated to receive officer training at the U.S. Naval Academy” for his invention of a winch attached to rescue boats that could remove crashed planes submerged in water.
Fuller focused extensively on the fundamental geometries of the objects around him, such as in cars and planes and repeatedly played with the motif of a spherical, net-like structure, especially apparent in his “Geodesic Dome.” The piece is not only an innovative, large-scale representation of his style, but a testament to the eye through which he saw the world.
Today, The Fuller Institute, an “international network of Fuller-inspired innovators,” memorializes not only Fuller’s innovative architectural style and philosophical efforts, but the architect’s “pursuit to make the world work for 100% of humanity.”
Bonnie Raitt, Class of 1972
Blues singer and social justice and human rights activist Bonnie Raitt entered Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1967 to pursue a degree in social relations and African relations. As Harvard Magazine reports, Raitt entered Radcliffe compelled by the political and musical spheres in Cambridge during the end of the 60s, “not to mention the four to one ratio of guys to women—which was not lost on me,” she said. A sentiment further supported by Business Insider’s assertion that Raitt “couldn’t wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements.”
During her time at Harvard, Raitt lived in Cabot’s Bertram Hall and frequently attended Harvard Square’s Club 47 to engage in the musical scene. In an interview conducted with Oprah Magazine, Raitt stated, “I entered Harvard as a freshman, confident—in the way that only 17-year-olds are—that I could change the world… I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world. Cambridge was a hotbed of this kind of thinking, and I was thrilled.”
Raitt grew up in a Quaker household playing guitar as a hobby, something she never imagined legitimizing into anything greater than a pass-time, according to Business Insider. Yet, after connecting with Dick Waterman following his request to interview her for WHRB, Harvard’s radio network, this quickly changed. Waterman was a prominent figure in the blues revival movement based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Raitt and Waterman soon became good friends, despite more then a forty year age gap. When Dick and a group of musicians left Cambridge to pursue music, Business Insider reports, Raitt felt she had to follow them.
She took what was supposed to be a semester off in 1970 to go to Philadelphia and help out on the Rolling Stones tour before receiving an offer to sign with Warner Brothers, after which she officially dropped out of Harvard. Shortly after signing, Raitt released her first album “Bonnie Raitt,” and has since released 18 more.
Raitt has won a total of ten Grammy awards, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. She holds number fifty on The Rolling Stone’s “00 Greatest Singers Of All Time.” Indeed, Raitt told The Oprah Magazine that her choice to pursue music and step away from Harvard was “a big choice, a deciding moment, but ultimately either path brings surprises and magic.”
Bom Kim ’00
Bom Kim did in-fact receive his Bachelor of Arts and Science from Harvard College in 2000 but dropped out of Harvard Business School after only six months as a graduate student there. He is now the CEO of Coupang, a South Korean e-commerce platform with a net worth of a staggering $35.07 billion, which is often considered the Amazon of South Korea.
In an interview conducted with CNBC’s Make it, Kim commented that “I had a belief when I was in grad school that I had a very short window to really make something that had an impact.” Kim continues by stating that he noticed a sort of “growing technology opportunity” that he felt compelled to act on and cites this sentiment as a primary force toward his founding of Coupang in 2010.
Kim’s inclination toward business and media was apparent even in his early days at Harvard where he founded the student magazine “the Current”, and even raised a whopping $4 million in revenue for Harvard’s now begone alumni magazine the “02138.”
Elisabeth Shue ’00
Piranha, Karate Kid, and Leaving Las Vegas actress Elisabeth Shue began her career in film as a teenager and gained a reputation for her ads for Burger King and Hellman’s mayonnaise as a young adult. Shue dropped out of Harvard during her senior year to pursue acting full time. After originally planning a concentration in government in 1985, Shue returned to Harvard in 1997 to receive a degree in political science.
Shue exited Harvard because her growing popularity in film brought her a “steady stream of roles that ensured her place on Hollywood’s A-list,” The Crimson reported. The University Harrold states that, “It was in 1984 however that she made her film debut. She starred in ‘The Karate Kid.’ Her movie exposure prompted her to make a career decision.”
Since her time at Harvard, not only has Shue made appearances in numerous, high-grossing films from the likes of Woody Allen John G. Avildsen, but has been nominated for a Golden Globe, Award, BAFTA Award, and even an Academy Award.
Robert Frost, Class of 1901
Maybe when Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,” the poet was referencing to his departure from Harvard College in 1898. Originally a San Francisco native, Frost moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1884 following the death of his mother.
In reflection, Frost stated that Harvard “could not make a student of me here, but they gave it their best.” Frost left the College in 1898, primarily due to illness, but also to pursue a life as a father and as a poet.
Frost remains a beloved and revered community member and was cited by former Harvard president James Bryant Conant as “the poet of New England”. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard College in 1937 and his four Pulitzer Prizes in poetry stand as a reminder of his poetic contribution at large.
These individuals represent a fundamental truth about the Harvard student: no two are the same. Yet no matter what path they follow, they continue to showcase the principle of hard work at the core of Harvard’s mission. If you’re considering dropping out, keep in mind that you’re in good company.
Clara Corcoran ’25 (email@example.com) recommends a trip to Buckminster’s Cafe and a read of Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”