Dorothy Jean Tillman earned a college degree online at 12 and a master’s degree in environmental science at 14. This summer, she’s running a camp in Chicago, Illinois, to bring science and the arts to kids who’ve been cooped up during the pandemic. She spoke with TFK’s Brian S. McGrath about her education and why she’s sharing it with others.
1. How have you achieved such a high level of education?
I started homeschooling at a very young age. It was freeing, because I was able to make my own hours and still get all my work done. I finished high school courses by the time I was 9.
2. Do you miss being in school with other kids?
I miss the social dynamic. But I do things to make up for it. For instance, I keep myself immersed in the arts. That keeps my social life active. In the afternoon, I go to a dance program. To find balance in life, you have to do what works for you.
3. You have degrees in psychology, humanities, and science. Why all of these?
I think these subjects are connected. Psychology and the humanities teach you to have empathy, to understand people. That can help a scientist understand why people treat the environment the way they do.
4. Why did you start a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) camp for kids in Chicago?
I believe I should be helping the people who put me where I am. Young Black kids don’t get a fair fighting chance. They don’t get introduced to subjects like technology. Some boys might get a chance to work their way into the field of engineering. But girls barely get their toe into the water. They need to see people like me, to see that I’m young and doing these things.
5. You’re also starting STEM labs in South Africa.
Yes, I went there with my mom, Jimalita Tillman. She’s the global director of the Harold Washington Cultural Center, in Chicago. I met girls who loved academics, like I did. But they didn’t have the same resources.
I thought something had to be done. I got all my notes together, brought them to my mom, and said, “This is something I really want to do.” We started a GoFundMe page and approached other donors [too]. These labs will have a similar setup as the STEAM camp, but it will go year-round. The projects will be bigger.
6. Your grandmother taught you a lot, didn’t she?
My grandmother is Dorothy Jean Tillman—I was named after her. She is a former politician in Chicago. She fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. You had to be a scholar to join his organization. My grandmother was 16 at the time. King told her, “If you’re going to do all these things with me, you’re going to have to finish school and go to college.” She brought me up with those ideals. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my determination, and I got that from her.
7. Tell us about the book you’re working on.
It’s called Unlock the Jeanius Within. It will contain [quotes] from people I have found inspirational, or who have helped me along the way. I think real wisdom is understanding where you want to be and being able to communicate that.
8. What will you do next?
There isn’t any one thing that I have to do. I’m only 14. I have so much time to decide.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.