Chicago teen who started college at 10 earns doctoral degree at 17

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Dorothy Jean Tillman II’s participation in Arizona State University’s May 6 commencement was the latest step on a higher-education journey the Chicago teen started when she took her first college course at age 10.

In between came associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

When Tillman successfully defended her dissertation in December, she became the youngest person — at age 17 — to earn a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health at Arizona State, associate professor Leslie Manson told ABC’s “Good Morning America” for a story Monday.

“It’s a wonderful celebration, and we hope ... that Dorothy Jean inspires more students,” Manson said. “But this is still something so rare and unique.”

Tillman, called “Dorothy Jeanius” by family and friends, is the granddaughter of former Chicago Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman.

When most students are just learning to navigate middle school, her mother enrolled Tillman in classes through the College of Lake County in northern Illinois, where she majored in psychology and completed her associate’s degree in 2016, according to her biography.

Tillman earned a bachelor’s in humanities from New York’s Excelsior College in 2018. About two years later, she earned her master’s of science from Unity College in Maine before being accepted in 2021 into Arizona State’s Behavioral Health Management Program.

Most of her classwork was done remotely and online. Tillman did attend her Arizona State commencement in person and addressed the graduating class during the ceremony.

Tillman told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she credits her grandmother and trusting in her mother’s guidance for her educational pursuits and successes.

“Everything that we were doing didn’t seem abnormal to me or out of the ordinary until it started getting all of the attention,” said Tillman, now 18.

There have been sacrifices, though.

“I didn’t have the everyday school things like homecoming dances or spirit weeks or just school pictures and things like that ... that kind of create unity with my peers,” she said.

She has found time to dance and do choreography. Tillman also is founder and chief executive of the Dorothyjeanius STEAM Leadership Institute. The program includes summer camps designed to help young people in the arts and STEM subjects.

She said her plans include public speaking engagements and fundraising for the camp, which Tillman said she hopes to franchise one day.

Tillman is motivated and has innovative ideas, said Manson, adding, “And truly, I think what is inspiring is that she embodies that meaning of being a true leader.”

Jimalita Tillman said she is most impressed with her daughter’s ability to show herself and her successes with grace, but to also understand when to “put her foot down” when choosing between social outings and her education.

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The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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