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Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman speaks at the Arizona State University College of Health Solutions convocation on May 8. (Courtesy Jimalita Tillman and Dorothy Tillman via CNN Newsource)

American teen earns doctoral degree at age 17

May 22, 2024

By Kaila Nichols, CNN

(CNN) — By age 14, Dorothy Jean Tillman had obtained an associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree. Despite the impressive achievements, Tillman remembers turning to her mother and saying, “I think I want to pursue a doctorate degree.”

Her mother, Jimalita Tillman, was surprised. They were in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. And Dorothy was a year into launching a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) camp startup, and she was looking for funding for the organization. She was busy.

“I was just like, ‘why?’ I thought you were done,” Jimalita told CNN.

But after Dorothy explained that her mission was to positively impact young people when it came to their mental health, Jimalita understood and lent her support.

Fast-forward two years, when 17-year-old Dorothy successfully delivered her dissertation. Now, at 18, she is officially Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman after walking at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions convocation on May 8.

Jimalita told CNN that seeing her daughter achieve so much is humbling.

“I knew what it took for her to go through that. She had to sacrifice a lot. A lot of her fears and going through different things during the pandemic,” she said. “She emerged as a leader without fear, showing them how to navigate online schooling.”

From a young age, Dorothy excelled in her academic pursuits. By age 7, she was already doing high school work. At that point, she started to take college level module tests and apply the credits toward higher education.

“It was always a very hard thing to kind of stomach mentally being so young. When you get out of college, you’re thinking, ‘what do I do next?’ Now I am able to sit in the comfortability of being a teenager and being OK with the fact that I don’t have to figure out what comes next,” Dorothy said.

She studied integrated behavioral healthat Arizona State University.For her dissertation, she explored the stigma that prevents university students from getting mental health treatment.

In addition to her school work, Dorothy also devotes her time to running the Dorothy Jeanius STEAM Leadership Institute, which inspires hundreds of underserved young people in Chicago, as well as abroad in countries like Ghana and South Africa, to pursue STEAM careers. The program includes guest speakers and open conversations around each of the five areas of STEAM.

“We just want to provide them with all the resources possible and the best foundation to be able to start walking on that pathway to their dreams,” she said.

While so many people marvel at the success she’s achieved, Tillman says she is still a normal teen who spends time with family and friends. She gives credit to her mother as one of her greatest motivators.

“I definitely couldn’t have gotten this far without her, like she’s definitely the best teammate, the best supporter,” she said.

Another inspiration for Tillman is her grandmother, former Chicago alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

After graduating from ASU, Tillman hopes to continue developing her camps and start applying her studies on integrated behavioral health into her work. There is a potential for franchising the camps one day so more kids gain something, she says. She also hopes to work more with kids in Africa.

“I’ve been focusing on my studies a lot and I don’t go nearly as much as I should,” Tillman said. “Now I’m glad to have the time for things like that.”

While she has achieved a lot at her age, Tillman tells people it’s all about having a supportive family around her.

“It’s teamwork that makes the dream work,” she said. “It is a village that builds the land. It’s having those people there with you that is going to, you know, uphold you at the end of the day.”

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