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Teen Prodigy DJ Tillman Pioneers STEAM Education

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DJ Tillman

At an age when most teenagers are deciding what they want to study when they go to college, DJ Tillman is already mulling over her future when she finishes there. The Chicago prodigy is due to complete her doctoral program in May next year, when she will be just 18.

Having made national headlines for her remarkable educational progress, Tillman—the DJ stands for first name Dorothy Jean—has also won awards for her efforts to inspire other young people to pursue academic excellence, through her Dorothy Jeanius Leadership Institute.

The organization’s STEAM emphasis adds an A for arts to the traditional STEM focus on science, technology, engineering and math. “It makes it so much more multifaceted,” the young CEO says of the additional area of interest. “We can’t have a left brain without a right brain, and we need that balance.”

Promoting problem-solving and leadership development through in-person camps and STEAM kits for in-home use, the initiative has seen Tillman named in Diversity in Action magazine’s “20 Under 20 Next Gen STEAM Leaders” and as a recipient of the 2022 Phenomenal Woman Award from The Black Women’s Expo in her Chicago hometown.

Established in 2020, her institute was created partly in response to her experiences as a gifted student. Often in programs with students who were older than her and interacting with teachers who were “talking at us and not to us,” she didn’t feel those situations were “building a foundation where I knew I could come back and talk to these people if I need a job or a recommendation… and I wanted to create that sort of space to build young leaders.”

With the proper support, she believes, anything is possible. “If you have that passion in yourself and you have that dedication, that’s all you need,” she tells WayMaker Journal. “And then the rest is the village, and it’s your resources.”

Tillman’s academic timeline is impressive. An associate degree in psychology from College of Lake County, Illinois, aged 11. A bachelor’s in liberal arts and humanities from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, at 13. A master’s in environmental and sustainable science from Unity College in New Gloucester, Maine, at 15. She enrolled in her doctoral studies in behavioral health at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in 2020.

Staying connected

Tillman’s educational focus was encouraged from an early age. Her mom introduced her to flashcards and other learning materials when she was small, “so from a young age I was stringing sentences together and doing things like that earlier, walking and doing the normal baby things sooner.”

As she progressed, a lot of her learning took place online. “It is lonely,” she acknowledges, something she brings up with parents who seek her thoughts on helping gifted students. “The social structure that school provides for kids is very important, and it makes them all think in similar ways that I’m not able to think—which is a blessing and a curse,” says Tillman. “In a way, that is very freeing because I haven’t been constrained by being in a high school, but it also makes it hard sometimes to connect with my peers.”

When the school shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic forced more students online, she developed more friendships “because we were all doing the same thing now. We were all at home, so everybody started to take on those at-home habits and things like that that at-home school kids do.”

While some worry that solo, online learning inhibits socialization and developing communication skills, that hasn’t been Tillman’s experience. She references a reality television show she saw recently in which someone said that they didn’t like another cast member because this person was annoying because they had only child syndrome.

“I immediately realized that a big part of having only childhood syndrome is just not being self-aware,” says Tillman, herself a single child. But she has a lot of close cousins and family that help keep her grounded. “They’ll tell me, ‘Oh, that’s extra,’ or, ‘That’s weird,’ or ‘That’s too much.’ I’ve had cousins that are just like siblings to me that have created that social setting. I’ve always been put in different programs to be made to socialize, to learn from those situations.”

Though she has no plans for further education (“I’ve been in school a really long time”), if she ever wanted to pursue more studies in personal passion areas like dance or poetry, she might consider an on-campus experience. “I’m not fully sure if it’s something I want to do,” she says. “I want to see how the rest of the year shakes out with school and my business and things like that before I make big decisions. ”

Listening well

As a young person whose achievements have earned the ear of her elders, what is Tillman’s message to them? That many in her generation have a disdain for the world they have inherited—post 9/11 security fears, inflation and other challenges. “It was the world that we were born into, that we’re still living in, that they’re just kind of angry at.”

Her concern is that “young Black kids are not being listened to enough, and I feel like it makes them not want to listen to the people who aren’t listening to them,” she says. That’s unfortunate because “there are a lot of things that my generation still needs from the generation above us—whether it’s their wisdom or the things that they’re in charge of that they’re able to provide us or unlock. But if there is no mutual respect or communication, I just feel like a lot of kids will just shut down.”

So many adults in leadership positions, “people that we’re supposed to be looking toward to guide us or teach us something,” are in need of therapy themselves, she observes. “They have a lot of problems they haven’t worked on… If people who were guiding these kids to begin with were listening and communicating and treating them like humans and not half of a human, just because they were children, I feel like they would be a lot less angry.”

Some of that youthful frustration has been on display in her hometown in recent months—a “teen takeover” of the city’s downtown Millennium Park that saw hundreds of young people running in traffic, fighting and damaging property made national news. Does she have any advice for the city’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson?

“I don’t like to tell anybody how to do their job, especially if I haven’t done it before, but I feel like the biggest part of communication is listening and understanding,” she answers. “It’s not very hard to understand someone, and that is the biggest part of communication that people miss out on when they’re telling someone something so that they can get their feelings and emotions out but not so that that person can understand it.” Communication is supposed to be telling someone something in a way they can understand so there can be resolution, she adds.

Tillman recommends tackling some of Chicago’s long-standing problems, like health care and transportation. “A lot of these people who are causing problems just need therapy and a school system that hasn’t been built against them from the moment that they entered it,” she says. “Someone can’t fix every single problem that is built on years and years and years in one term, but I feel like those are the problems that needed to be focused on. I wouldn’t say how to do it, but I think those are the things that need to be focused on.”

Dreaming big

Making a mark is in the Tillman women’s genes. Grandmother Dorothy Jean Tillman, from whom Tillman gets her first names, is a longtime civil rights activist. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Center, later representing Chicago’s 3rd Ward as an alderman for more than 20 years. Tillman’s mother, Jimalita Tillman, has been Global Director of Programs and Operations at Chicago’s respected Harold Washington Cultural Center for almost two decades.

That heritage has undoubtedly played a part in her achievements, Tillman acknowledges when asked whether her attainment results from being naturally gifted or plain hard work. “Kind of nature and nurture,” she says. “I feel like a lot of it is just my nature, and just how I was born—a lot of the type of women that are in my family, like my grandmother, [who] is a trailblazer in Chicago. So that was kind of already in me, of course, to an extent, but also that nurture of the environment that I was in made me very hard working, and it gave me that foundation and those resources and that village to know what to do and how to do it.”

Tillman has managed to pursue her studies and develop her business without missing out on a social life. “All of my friends would tell you I’m a very normal teenager,” she says, describing herself as a social butterfly. “I do very normal teenager stuff. I love TikTok and YouTube the way everybody else does. I care about the same social dramas and things everybody does but probably in a different way. I care about all the same things, do all the same things, but may look at it from a different perspective to an extent.”

She is a member of The Happiness Club, a dance group that performs around Chicago to promote tolerance, education and self-esteem. “We always make it fun,” she says. “We make the place a party.” As a music lover, she trades playlists with her friends and enjoys reading poetry. “I don’t have a bunch of hobbies,” she admits. “Me and my friends can be guilty of being couch potatoes, just wanting to sit at home and find a movie to watch, but it also depends on the friend and what I want to do that day.”

While Tillman’s academic side is all about the data, she also has room for dreaming. “I’m a Pisces,” she explains, “so every moment is a moment to dream. I’m dreaming when I’m listening to music.” Though she has big goals, hers is “mostly just a lavish, fun life where I’m happy with my friends and the level of my life. Love is very important to me, whether it’s platonic or romantic.”

In the future, she aspires to “a happy, comfortable life where I am continuing to influence kids and teaching them how to be leaders and teaching them how to find these resources that I’ve had that have helped me get here.” And, at the same time, “having a nice home, where all of my friends come over whenever they want, and they stay for as long as they want, because I’m just a very loving, want all of my people around me all the time, type of person. It’s a Pisces thing.”

From an interview with Louis Carr

“I haven’t been constrained by being in a high school, but it also makes it hard sometimes.. ”

“Young Black kids are not being listened to enough.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.