Faces of Black Excellence

Young genius who was homeschooled makes history earning doctoral degree at 17

A 17-year-old from Chicago, Dorothy Jean Tillman II, walked in her graduation ceremony this month after earning her doctoral degree. Tillman, who was homeschooled early on, started college at age 10.

By 2020, she had obtained a Master of Science degree, and a year later, at just 15, she was accepted into Arizona State University’s Doctorate of Behavioral Health Management program. In December 2023, at 17,  Tillman successfully defended her dissertation, earning a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.

On May 6, she participated in ASU’s spring commencement ceremony. She told “Good Morning America” that her deep respect for education stems from 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.”

She continued, “I feel like that urge to learn something new just never didn’t exist for me.”

Dr. Lesley Manson, a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University, told “Good Morning America” that Tillman is the youngest person in school history to earn a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health.

Manson, who oversaw Tillman’s dissertation for the ASU Online program, noted that Tillman authored a journal article based on her dissertation and completed an internship at a university student health center during her studies.

“She really led change and worked on different forms of management to really reduce healthcare stigma and improve that student population there to be able to enter and accept student health services,” she said of Tillman. “It was wonderful to see her and help her navigate some of those personal and professional interactions and grow through those experiences.”

Manson described Tillman as an “inquisitive” and “innovative” student, highlighting the rarity of her achievements at such a young age.

“It’s a wonderful celebration … but this is still something so rare and unique,” she said. “She has innovative ideas and motivation, which is wonderful, and truly, I think what is inspiring is that she embodies that meaning of being a true leader.”

Manson expressed hope that Tillman will continue to inspire others with her passion for learning, remarking, “that curiosity is always there, and I think all learners come with that, but it’s great to see it in someone so young.”

Tillman credited her mother as one of her biggest motivators, stating that her remarkable journey wouldn’t have been possible without her support.

“Seeing my mother consistently work 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.

The young genius is also the founder and CEO of a leadership institute that prioritizes the arts and STEM education.

“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.”

Stephen Nartey

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