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Teen graduates after earning doctoral degree at age 17

Courtesy of Arizona State University/W Scott Mitchell

(CHICAGO) — A teenager from Chicago walked in her graduation ceremony this month after earning her Ph.D at 17.


Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II was only 10 when she became a freshman at the college of Lake County, majoring in Psychology. In 2020, she earned her Master of Science from Unity College. She was accepted in 2021, when she was 15, into the Doctor of Behavioral Health Management Program at Arizona State University.

Speaking to “Good Morning America,” Tillman said she has always held education in such high regard in part due to her family’s background.

“People in my life like my grandmother, who was part of the Civil Rights Movement, she of course harped on the importance of education and consistently learning something always,” Tillman said.

“But the way I always held education so high on my own, aside from being raised that way was finding different things to be educated about it doesn’t just have to be all of the subjects that they teach you in school there’s so many things in the world to learn about that we wish we knew about,” she said. “I feel like that urge to learn something new just never didn’t exist for me.”

Tillman said, growing up, she had always felt drawn towards psychology and related fields.

“They’ve always made me so curious,” she said. “And so grinding away, I could continue to study in that area. With even more that was attached to it. It was just really intriguing to me.”

In December 2023, at 17, Tillman successfully defended her dissertation to earn her doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health from ASU’s College of Health Solutions. On May 6, she walked at ASU’s commencement ceremonies.

Tillman told “GMA” prior to the big day that she was feeling “so excited,” just like any other student.

“I love having a reason to celebrate and throw a big soirée,” she said. “Just that walk, and especially with people I haven’t been there, seeing every day, since my program is online, it’s just gonna feel really fulfilling to finish.”

Dr. Leslie Manson, a clinical associate professor at ASU, told “GMA” that Tillman is the youngest person in school history to earn a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health.

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

Throughout Tillman’s time at ASU, Mason said she saw her growth in gaining the skills of professional writing as well as leadership, noting that Tillman is “inquisitive” and “intelligent.”

“She has innovative ideas and motivation, which is wonderful,” Mason explained. “And truly, I think what is inspiring is that she embodies that meaning of being a true leader.”

Mason added that “other students can really learn the piece of dedication” from Tillman.

“So that motivating energy, those are the pieces that I think other folks can really turn to and feel inspired about,” she said. “That curiosity is always there. And I think all learners come with that. But it’s great to be able to see it in someone so young as well.”

Her inspiration and how she gives back to community

Tillman’s journey to success wouldn’t be made possible without the support from her mom whom she said is one of her biggest motivators.

“Seeing my mother consistently worked so hard to continuously uphold our family’s legacy, and be that person that everyone was able to go to, if they needed anything… Always seeing [her] like [a] ‘Wonder Woman’ definitely made me want to grow up [into] an accomplished person,” she said.

An advocate for education, Tillman is also the founder and CEO of the Dorothyjeanius STEAM Leadership Institute, where she runs programs like summer camps to help kids find balance between arts and STEM subjects.

“I feel like adding art and putting a focus on it throughout science, technology, engineering, and math, makes the kids excited to learn all those things,” she said. “And it opens them up to all of the possibilities and all the knowledge provided in that area of just STEM.”

As for her plans after graduation, Tillman said she is “just like any other teenager, still figuring out what my specific dreams and goals are.”

“And I’m really just grateful that the world is my oyster, and that I’ve done so much so young. And I have time to like, kind of think that through,” she said.

Discussing her advice to other youngsters, Tillman said she would remind them to be careful about being influenced on what they see on social media, noting that some posts “aren’t real.”

“There’s a lot more to whatever it is than what you’re seeing, you know, and so to always remember that is definitely important,” she said. “And to always remember that everyone has points in their life where they feel like they’re figuring it out…And so figuring things out, not knowing what you want, isn’t a bad thing. But making the choice not to sit down and try to figure it out is.”

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