Teen walks at graduation after completing doctoral degree at 17

Dorothy Jean Tillman II was 10 when she entered college as a freshman.

May 14, 2024, 12:07 PM

A teenager from Chicago walked in her graduation ceremony this month after earning her doctoral degree at 17.

Dorothy Jean Tillman II told "Good Morning America" that she was homeschooled in her early years before entering college at age 10.

In 2020, she said she earned a Master of Science degree, and then, one year later, at age 15, was accepted into the Doctorate of Behavioral Health Management program at Arizona State University.

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 spring commencement ceremony.

PHOTO: Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II earned her doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health.
Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II earned her doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health.
Courtesy of Arizona State University/W Scott Mitchell

Tillman told "GMA" 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."

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 ASU, told "GMA" that Tillman is the youngest person in school history to earn a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health.

Manson said she oversaw Tillman's dissertation for the doctoral program offered through ASU Online.

During her studies, Tillman wrote a journal article of her dissertation and completed an internship at a university student health center, according to Manson.

"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, and emphasized just how rare it is to accomplish what she has so far.

"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."

PHOTO: Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II and her professor Dr. Lesley Manson, a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University.
Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II and her professor Dr. Lesley Manson, a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University.
Courtesy of Arizona State University/W Scott Mitchell

Manson said she hopes Tillman continues to inspire people with her love of learning, saying, "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 said her own journey wouldn't be possible without the support of her mom, who she said is one of her biggest motivators.

"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.

PHOTO: Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II officially walked at her graduation ceremony in May.
Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II officially walked at her graduation ceremony in May.
Courtesy of Arizona State University/Charlie Leight

An advocate for education, Tillman is also the founder and CEO of a leadership institute that emphasizes the arts and STEM.

"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."

PHOTO: Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II was only 10 when she became a freshman at the college of Lake County, majoring in Psychology.
Dr. Dorothy Jean Tillman II was only 10 when she became a freshman at the college of Lake County, majoring in Psychology.
Courtesy of Jimalita Tillman

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

Tillman added that she hopes young people will take away from her story that it's OK to continually figure out what you want to do in life.

"Always remember that everyone has points in their life where they feel like they're figuring it out," she said. "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."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional quotes from Tillman since its original publish date of May 13, 2024.