Written by: 
Jessica DeLeĆ³n
Photography by: 
Gary Payne
A

fter a year of research, Noel Jett had one last hurdle to tackle to get her Ph.D. -- her dissertation defense.

She made her presentation and fielded questions from the committee. An hour later, her advisors said she had successfully defended her work.

"They greeted me with, 'You're Dr. Jett now,'" she says. "I expected to successfully pass through the dissertation as they don't let you go through all that work and invite your friends and family if they aren't sure you'll make it, but it was still really exciting and a giant relief. Earning my Ph.D. has been a goal of mine since I was 6, so it was just amazing to finally be there."

But this accomplishment is especially unique -- Jett is 19 years old.

When the teen walks across the commencement stage Dec. 14 for her hooding ceremony, she will be the youngest-known student to earn a doctoral degree from the University of North Texas. And her studies in educational psychology have touched on a subject she knows well -- gifted children.

"It's been an extremely rewarding and complex journey," Jett says.

Support and encouragement

She began her journey with a curious mind as a child.

Jett, who was reading chapter books while her kindergarten classmates were learning their letters, was home-schooled by her mother, Nancy Shastid. This allowed Jett to learn at her own pace and explore things she was passionate about. For example, at about age 8, Jett became especially curious about guinea pigs, so her parents made it part of her education, like they did for other topics she was interested in. Her mother assigned her a research paper about the animals, and her math tutor used guinea pigs in word problems.

"We took and continue to take learning seriously," Jett says. "That's not to say I was being forced to work excessively. We had high but reasonable standards, and I was met with lots of support and encouragement."

By age 8, Jett had surpassed her mother in high school-level algebra problems. At age 12, she attended a semester at the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences in the Fort Worth ISD, a program that prepares students with high school and college courses. She then attended Tarrant County College and eventually Texas A&M University, where she graduated at age 16 in 2015.

My time at UNT has not only benefited me academically, but all the different social experiences I've had as a student living in Denton have definitely helped shape me.
Noel Jett

The next summer, Jett enrolled in UNT's graduate educational psychology program. She says she chose UNT not only for the caliber of the program, but because many of the faculty members have prominent roles in national and international research organizations and journals.

Jett has received much support from her advisor, Anne Rinn, professor of educational psychology.

"Dr. Rinn has been a great resource for the academic and professional aspects, of course, but she also has rooted and advocated for me throughout my journey," Jett says, adding that she took three years to finish her Ph.D. instead of the usual four.

Jett says she took solace in a sign in Rinn's office that read: "Even on the worst days, you're going to grow."

"It's not an easy process to get a Ph.D.," Jett says.

As a UNT student, Jett lived off campus with her mother and was able to walk to her classes. In between her studies and work, she enjoyed the UNT culture and took advantage of resources and events, the most memorable being a drag show. She became involved in the music scene by playing piano in her worship band at church, ate her way through Denton restaurants such as LSA Burger and Beth Marie's and helped found a worship service, Open Worship, at First United Methodist Church.

"My time at UNT has not only benefited me academically, but all the different social experiences I've had as a student living in Denton have definitely helped shape me," she says.

Helping others

For Jett's 140-page dissertation, titled "Radically Early College Entrants on Radically Early College Entrance: A Heuristic Exploration," she interviewed 10 individuals from different age groups, and while they all had different paths to their academic careers, they were like her -- people who attended college at age 15 or younger.

Engaging in interviews, which sometimes reached up to two hours, Jett says she found that each person had a good sense of humor and was relatable to others. She also discovered they were stable and comfortable socially, psychologically and emotionally.

"I found them overall to be happy with their accomplishments, careers, social experiences, and they had positive relationships now," she says.

Jett says aside from studying about gifted education as a graduate student, she also learned valuable skills as a teaching assistant. She worked in an office environment with the other educational teaching assistants in Matthews Hall, and she collaborated with others on work and class projects.

Jett recently accepted an offer from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to start a master's program for clinical mental health counseling that will enable her, in addition to proper licensure, to become a therapist.

"My goal is to be a therapist specializing in gifted people and their families," Jett says.

"But of course I would enjoy working with all kinds of people."

And she's got that new title to boast.

"Dr. Jett or Ms. Jett -- one sounds slightly cooler," she says.