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She earned her college degree at 10. Now, this Chicago teen has a PhD

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Dorothy Jean Tillman II had always dreamed of her prom dress: royal blue, with a sweetheart neckline and a fitted bodice. 

“She’s such a teenager,” her mom, Jimalita Tillman said.

But unlike other teens, Dorothy isn’t in high school — far from it. Earlier this month, the 18-year-old graduated with a Ph.D. in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University. Her friends call her DJ, short for Dorothy “Jeanius.”

“I’m just grateful that I was able to make it this far,” Dorothy said. “I have a very supportive team of people around me, so I feel very lucky.” 

The Bronzeville teen is the youngest person ever to graduate from ASU’s behavioral health doctoral program. The median age of doctorate recipients in the U.S. is 31.4. It’s extremely rare for teens to earn a Ph.D.: Just 0.6% of 18- and 19-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Now, Dorothy has dedicated her time to nonprofit work, tackling education inequality on the city’s South Side.  

Jimalita  — her self-proclaimed “momCEO” — said her only child excelled in advanced coursework from a young age. As a child, she was homeschooled, insulated in a tight-knit circle of tutors and coaches. At age 10, she began online classes at the College of Lake County as a psychology major. 

Traditional schooling seemed too constricting for the prodigy, her mom said. 

“You can’t put a 10-year-old in a box,” Jimalita said. “She was very curious. A lot of adults have not historically been able to deal with someone so young as a critical thinker.”

While her peers were in elementary school, Dorothy earned a bachelor of science in humanities at Excelsior University. At age 14, she completed a double master’s from Unity Environmental University in environmental and sustainable science. The rigorous and remote schoolwork wasn’t always easy.

Dorothy Jean Tillman, 18, at the library of her family home in Chicago on May 17, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Dorothy Jean Tillman, 18, in the library of her family home in Chicago on May 17, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

“I try to give myself a big push with everything I do,” she said. “Sometimes that can be a little anxiety-invoking.”

A trailblazing legacy runs in the family. Her grandmother and her namesake, Dorothy Jean Tillman I, was a Chicago alderman for more than two decades on the South Side. Known for her extravagant hats, she worked as a field staff organizer beside Martin Luther King Jr. and was a fierce advocate for slavery reparations in the city. 

“I carry her legacy with me,” Dorothy said of her grandmother. “I think that seeing all the work that she did as a community leader definitely inspired me to want to do something similar.”

At first, Dorothy was nervous about pursuing a doctorate, but she found herself drawn to ASU’s online behavioral health program. A Ph.D. seemed like the natural next step in her education journey, she said. She also loved the university’s “merch,” she recalled fondly.

“We went and spent, like, $800 at their store, and I was like, ‘I think I’ll stay.’ I like this shirt,” she said with a laugh. 

Her dissertation, which she successfully defended at age 17, analyzed stigmas associated with campus mental health services. Lesley Manson, an ASU professor and chair of Tillman’s doctoral committee, described the teen as dedicated and hardworking. Her age only propelled her further. 

“She tackled challenges head-on, never allowing her age to limit her aspirations,” Manson said in an email. “Her passion for equity and advocacy was clear.” 

Dorothy hopes to use her degrees to improve the accessibility of STEAM education in Chicago (short for science, technology, engineering, art and math). She launched two nonprofit organizations in 2020: Dorothyjeanius STEAM Leadership Institute and Dorothy Jeanius STEAM Labs, with locations in Chicago and South Africa. 

Dorothy Jean Tillman, 18, is honored during a City Council meeting on May 22, 2024. She recently graduated with a PhD in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Dorothy Jean Tillman, 18, is honored during a City Council meeting on May 22, 2024. She recently graduated with a Ph.D. in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Her institute’s free summer program in Bronzeville offers field trips, labs and classes to 30 students. This year, the waitlist is more than 200 families long. Now that she’s graduated, she hopes to run the program year-round. 

The teen also serves as an official adviser on STEAM education for the Ghana government and has co-authored a children’s book encouraging young adults to unlock their potential. 

Nearly 5,000 students have participated in activities through her nonprofit. Many say she’s a source of inspiration. 

“Even though Dorothy is technically the boss and CEO, she doesn’t just make decisions, she wants to hear feedback from everyone,” said Aryn Delette, a 20-year-old camp counselor and nursing student. “Watching her, it really does allow you to look at yourself as a leader.”

JP Paulus’ 12-year-old daughter attended the camp last summer. It wasn’t until Dorothy appeared on “The Jennifer Hudson Show” last month that the pair realized the extent of her accomplishments. Paulus was struck by how down-to-earth she was. 

“She’s very smart, a doctor, but at the same time she’s able to still relate to kids and interact as a normal teenager,” said Paulus, a Bronzeville resident. 

Dorothy tries to carve out a sense of normalcy for herself through creative outlets. She’s a member of a youth dance group, the Happiness Club, and frequently performs at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, where her mom works as the global director. She’s been commissioned for paintings and writes plays. 

“When I hear music, I can’t help but dance,” Dorothy said. “When I feel feelings, I can’t help but want to write poetry. When I see something hilarious, I can’t help but want to put it in a play.”

Sometimes, she said she wonders if she missed out on aspects of her childhood. Her circle of friends is a mismatched puzzle, she said, a network of people she’s met through extracurricular activities and other homeschooling students. But she doesn’t like to dwell on the past. 

“Comparison is a thief of joy,” Dorothy said. “And the grass isn’t really greener on the other side, it’s greener where you water it. I use a lot of metaphors, but when you really picture them, they definitely make you more comfortable in an array of situations. That’s how I looked to the future.”

And the future has been bright. Ahead of her graduation in February, her mom surprised her with a trip to Tokyo for Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour.” In March, she went on a graduation trip to Amsterdam with friends. 

“We’ve had so much fun,” Jimalita said. “We’re just trying to celebrate.”

Now, Dorothy hopes to take time off before leading her institute’s summer camp. As for another degree? She won’t rule it out. 

“In the past, I’ve gotten degrees and then been like, ‘OK, what’s next?” she said. “And the answer to my question now is just exploring the world and the things it has to offer.”

Last week, with a friend, she was finally able to attend a high school prom.



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