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This 19-year-old is the youngest known Ph.D at UNT

University of North Texas College of Education doctoral student Noel Jett will receive her PhD from UNT at the 2018 Fall Commencement. Photographed on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 in Denton. (Gary Payne/UNT Photo)
University of North Texas College of Education doctoral student Noel Jett will receive her PhD from UNT at the 2018 Fall Commencement. Photographed on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 in Denton. (Gary Payne/UNT Photo) Gary Payne/University of North Texas

When 19-year-old Noel Jett picks up her latest diploma in December, she walks across a ceremonial stage as the youngest known Ph.D graduate from the University of North Texas.

Jett’s graduation on Dec. 14 marks the second time the teen’s age is a notable part of a commencement. In May 2015, she graduated with bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas A&M University.

She gets asked a lot about how this feels.

“It’s the same as graduating at any other age,” Jett said, explaining the academic workload for everyone includes exams, hard work and a compelling research question.

Jett studied educational psychology with a focus on gifted and talented students. Her dissertation work analyzed how to better target the needs of young people who go college at age 15 or younger.

Jett’s research offers educators some insight into the learning needs of students like herself whose academic talents made them some of the nation’s youngest college students. She said there is a place in the complicated, nuanced and often controversial topic of gifted and talented education to address how educators meet the needs of a 7-year-old who is ready for algebra courses.

“Everyone knows that going to college at 15 or younger is a drastic decision,” Jett said. “We don’t take that lightly.”

An educational journey

Jett’s parents, Nancy and Alan Shastid, discovered their daughter’s gift when she started public, half-day kindergarten in the Keller school district. While her little classmates were learning letters, she was reading chapter books such as the “Junie B. Jones” series.

Nancy Shastid said her daughter, who legally dropped Shastid from her name, needed an academic environment that addressed her level of learning and her inquisitiveness. She said that educational journey included homeschooling, attending an Early College High School in the Fort Worth school district and taking classes at Tarrant County College.

Eventually, Jett ended up at Texas A&M University.

“It’s surreal,” Shastid said. “I look at her and I remember all of this journey.”

Shastid said helping find the right educational fit happened as they went through normal parent-teen “stuff.” It also meant they had to move around for Jett’s schooling.

“I just choke up thinking about how proud I am of her,” Shastid said.

Graduate work

Jett set aside early college high school programs and early college entrance programs, which she said offer different academic scenarios for young people. She focused on the reflections of adults who were young students in classrooms filled with classmates 18 and older.

This work allowed for discussion on how society treats young college students, she said. For example, many times people react to a 13, 14 or 15-year-old college student by asking if he or she is psychologically or emotionally ready for life on campus.

“You never ask an 18-year-old if they are ready,” Jett said, noting that many 18-year-olds are not ready for college.

People also picture young college students living alone on large campuses with little free time, but these students typically live with their families who have made the decision to enroll their child college because they are academically ready. Her research found that early college students had free time in college.

Jett, who wants to keep doing research on this topic, said educationally her study subjects were “really successful.” She said she found 10 subjects, ages 18 to 47 who had graduated with the degree they started.

“I have special access to those communities because I am a member of them,” Jett said, adding that some of these college students or graduates are wary of reporters who might exploit them.

Jett said interviews were more than two hours long and allowed her to connect with a community that sometimes feels isolated.

“I had a lot of fun interviewing these people,” she said. “They were all really friendly.”

Jett said she is thinking about writing a book related to her findings.

“There is no how-to guide on how to go to college early,” she said, adding that she may go back to school to become a clinical mental health therapist for early college learners.

Jett plans to take time to study her options. In the meantime, she will explore other emerging interests, including driving.

“I just got my first car,” she said. “I never had a car before.”

Jett, who plays piano, said she always finds time to watch the popular television series, ”Friends.”

“I’ve seen ‘Friends’ like five times through,” she said. “I watch it over and over again.”

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.