Dorothy Jean Tillman, 14, just received her master's degree from Unity College -- the youngest student ever to do so at the school. Credit: Courtesy of Jimalita Tillman

Dorothy Jean Tillman, a Chicago native, just received her master’s degree in sustainable science and environmental planning from Unity College.

Now, she’s working on a book and a project to develop engineering labs for South African girls, and she’s pondering putting together a podcast.

But she’ll surely find some time to just hang out, as well.

After all, she’s only 14.

“She’s a prodigy,” Melik Khoury, the president of the college in Unity, Maine, said of the school’s youngest-ever master’s program graduate. “She really cares about her community and is really interested in sustainability and the environment … I think D.J.’s going on to do great things.”

Tillman, who previously received her associate’s degree in psychology when she was almost 11 and her bachelor’s degree in humanities when she was just 12 years old, was part of Unity College’s distance education program. She and everyone in her cohort took all their classes online. But even though they didn’t need to go to Maine, she and her mother did venture to Unity at the outset of her program.

“The school was beautiful,” she said. “The farm, the animals, the cafeteria, the courses.”

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But it was back home, in Chicago, where she did her school work.

Gifted & talented

Tillman, the granddaughter of a civil rights activist and former Chicago alderman, was always special, according to her mother, Jimalita Tillman. The girl began talking at eight months old and doing math at four, and her mom encouraged her gifts.

“I always tried to lead by example, with a spirit of excellence,” she said. “Not just treating her as a child, but as a little person.”

Dorothy Jean Tillman went to a special school for gifted and talented children, and when opportunities arose for her to do more advanced work — including taking high school class modules when her regular classes were over for the day — she jumped at them.

“I’ve always been working towards the next goal,” the teen said.

As soon as she had completed and understood the material, she would test out of it, her mom said, which allowed her to enroll in the local junior college when she was very young. That school she attended in person, but didn’t feel like she stuck out.

“Most college students walk around, mind their own business and go to classes,” she said.

After Dorothy got her bachelor’s degree, Jimalita Tillman heard about Unity College, with its online program, and told her daughter about it. It ended up being a good fit. Although the idea of online learning may evoke images of students sitting at their kitchen tables, working on their laptops, that’s not how Unity College works, according to Khoury.

“We’re highly experiential,” he said. “We really try to flip that script. Our students are all over the country, doing real work.”

For Tillman, who took about 18 months to get her 30-credit master’s degree, that strategy was invigorating.

“Mom and I tried to go to as many engineering installations as we could find, go to park settings, go to museums and do field trips,” Tillman said.

More students opt for distance education

She’s one of a growing number of online-only students at Unity College, according to Amy Arnett, the vice president of distance education. The online master’s program got its very first cohort in October 2016 and the school began offering online bachelor’s degrees two years later, aiming the programs towards working adults who cannot easily drop everything and head to rural Maine for years to complete their program.

Even though the programs are fairly new, they have “blown all of our expectations out of the water,” Arnett said. The distance education program is larger than the residential program, with about 500 undergraduate and 200 graduate students, from nearly every state and six different countries, taking classes online. Unity College has about 600 residential students.

The most recent session, which began on Memorial Day, had 158 new students — the biggest class ever.

“They’re all connecting online. They all know each other,” she said of the students. “But they have never met face to face. For the most part, their first time coming is often for graduation, which is super exciting.”

If that traditional graduation had happened this year, students might have noticed that one of them was a bit younger than normal. The Tillmans didn’t want to tell the other students before, so that she wouldn’t be treated any differently. It worked, they said.

“You meet someone named Dorothy Jean, you think she’s an adult doing continuing education,” her mom said.

For Tillman, the future remains full of exciting unknowns. There’s the book she’s hoping to self-publish this fall, “ Unlock the Jeanius Within,” which she describes as similar to “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” and the other projects and dreams she has. Down the road, she’d like to be an entrepreneur and be her own boss.

“I’m still young. I like to keep my options open. I don’t want to get bored with one thing,” she said.

Dorothy Jean Tillman knows that not everyone can, or will, follow her ambitious educational path. But she does have some advice to share.

“Have your plan together,” she said. “Be sure of yourself. And once you’ve gotten to the point of communicating [your plan], you have to have tunnel vision. Don’t let things distract you.”