14-Year-Old Chicago Girl Earns Her Master's Degree: 'You Have to Be Dedicated'

Dorothy Jean Tillman graduated from Unity College with a master's degree in environmental science and sustainable engineering

Dorothy Jean Tillman
Dorothy Jean Tillman. Photo: Jimalita Tillman

Dorothy Jean Tillman is a typical 14-year-old in many ways: she loves dancing, scrolling through TikTok and hanging out with her friends.

But the Chicago teenager’s latest achievement — a master’s degree from Unity College — certainly sets her apart from her peers.

“I’m very proud of her and I’m proud of the example that she’s leaving behind,” mom Jimalita Tillman tells PEOPLE of her daughter, who goes by DJ.

DJ’s academic journey began in schools for gifted and talented children, though she soon came to feel that the distractions of a regular school environment were actually making it harder for her to learn.

Dorothy Tillman
DJ Tillman graduates from Excelsior College. Jimalita Tillman

With that in mind, she started dual enrollment for high school courses at 8 years old, going to regular class during the day, then taking online high school modules after school.

After completing high school, she earned her associate’s degree in psychology from the College of Lake County at age 10, then went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Excelsior College at 12.

Earlier this month, she accomplished her biggest feat yet with a master’s degree in environmental science and sustainable engineering from Unity College.

Dorothy Tillman
DJ Tillman with Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury. Jimalita Tillman

“We did a little family celebration,” she tells PEOPLE of her graduation, which was tentatively postponed to August due to coronavirus restrictions. “It was something small and simple because we still have to respect the rules of quarantine.”

DJ says it was her grandmother who first stoked her interest in STEM and engineering, as she’d buy her various magazines and books on the topic, which led the avid young pupil to join engineering and coding enrichment programs as a child.

While she’s unsure what her future holds at the moment, she knows she wants it to somehow involve STEM — and she’s starting by giving back.

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Last year, DJ accompanied her mom on a business trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where she met a group of local girls who shared her passion for STEM — but lacked the resources DJ enjoyed back at home. Inspired, she developed a plan to bring STEM labs to her new friends, and began fundraising for things like computers and microscopes, which she hopes to bring to Cape Town once coronavirus restrictions have lifted.

“I know in the future I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to be my own boss,” she says. “I kind of want to be able to take everything that I’ve learned, all of my degrees, and group them into one thing. Because the way I am, I can’t stay on one project. I have to hop around to different things to make sure I stay passionate in everything equally.”

Meanwhile, she’s also working on a book called Unlock the Jeanius Within — which she calls a “wellness, goal-oriented” compilation featuring excerpts from various people — and also floats the idea of one day hosting a podcast.

Dorothy Tillman
DJ Tillman. Jimalita Tillman

“To get where you want to be, you have to be dedicated,” she says. “[I don’t want people to be] like, ‘Oh man, she’s so smart, I can never do that.’ That’s not what I want them to think when they read or hear or see my story. I want them to be like, 'Oh my gosh, she's so goal-oriented. I need to be determined. I need to have tunnel vision to get to where I want to be. I need to be able to communicate my goals,' and things like that.”

While her academic achievements are certainly impressive, mom Jimalita says it’s her daughter’s ability to balance her studies with a thriving social life that makes her the most proud.

“I try to keep myself really immersed in the arts, so like, normal, quote unquote, kid things,’” DJ says.

She’s a member of a local dance ensemble called The Happiness Club, with which she performs all across Chicago, and she’s also a student ambassador for the Harold Washington Cultural Center, a gig that earned her a trip to the Tony Awards several years back.

DJ has also performed with the Illinois High School Musical Talent Association and the Chicago production of Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen — and even helped rewrite the Gettysburg Address to a rap, which Hamilton star Miguel Cervantes performed at the Illinois Bicentennial while dressed as Abraham Lincoln.

She’s also an alumnus of the Legacy Flight Academy, a youth aviation nonprofit inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen.

Dorothy Tillman
DJ Tillman. Jimalita Tillman

“She’s not isolated, and what I love about her is that she can code switch — she can talk with the adults who are her peers, and then she can be with the kids who are her peers,” her mom says. “Although she’s advancing academically, she gets all the things that her peers get.”

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