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She's Getting Her Ph.D. From UNT — And She's Just 19 Years Old

Noel Jett, left, with her mother, Nancy Shastid
Noel Jett, left, with her mother, Nancy Shastid
Noel Jett, left, with her mother, Nancy Shastid

The youngest known doctoral student to graduate from University of North Texas in Denton gets her diploma Friday. Noel Jett, 19, has lived on the UNT campus the last three years studying educational psychology.

Only a few months into pre-kindergarten, Jett was so intellectually bright that her mom pulled her out of school to teach her at home. Her fast-paced education never slowed. By 13, Jett began community college. At 14, she entered Texas A&M University in College Station, living off campus with her mother.

She graduated from A&M at 16, but she was just warming up.   

“The Ph.D. thing? I got my bachelor’s degree in a total of three years,” Noel Jett says. “And then someone says, 'Would you like to spend three years getting a master's?' No. I knew I was going to go toward a Ph.D. When you get a Ph.D., your master's is kind of nullified.”

Nancy Shastid says her daughter’s intellectual curiosity focused on psychology almost from the start. The first sign was when, at 3 years old, Noel would ask her why other kids were doing the things they were doing, Shastid said

"It would be, like, ‘Well, I don't know sweetie, I guess she wanted to do that,’" Shastid recalls. “And she would be like, 'OK, but why would she want to do that?' She just seemed to be very curious about why people did what they did.”

In some ways, Shastid might have seen herself when looking at her young daughter.  That’s because mom entered college at age 16 as a way to move up and out, she said.

“I just wanted a degree that I could get a job at,” Shastid says. “I wanted to be able to support myself and not [live] in abject poverty.”

Jett’s doctorate degree focuses on the behavior of young gifted students like her. Through the years, she’s been called a genius, among other things.

“I’m a 'former child prodigy,' the most offensive of all the terms assigned to me,” Jett says.

The 19-year-old will accept “profoundly gifted,” though she dislikes almost all labels. She says they’re good for data or in schools, not as an identity.

She says she’s not the perfect brainiac that people may assume. She was a TV contestant on "Millionaire Whiz Kids" at 15, winning $25,000 but answering wrong on a question worth a lot more. Jett applied to numerous graduate schools and got accepted only at UNT.

Jett’s got a normal life, including a boyfriend, church mission work, music — she plays piano, sings and writes songs.  

And in the classroom, she says school’s never been easy, because she’s always the youngster.

“Everything was hard in a different way,” Jett says. Some things "were hard in an invigorating way and some were hard in an exhausting way.”   

A psychology class? That's invigorating. A course on hierarchical linear modeling? That's exhausting. Still, Jett loves it. That may show in her dissertation.

“The actual title is 'Radically Early College Entrants on Radically Early College Entrance,'" Jett says. "And I sort of had people say 'this isn’t a professional title.' And I said, 'Yes, it’s my title. I’m well aware it’s unprofessional. That’s because I wrote it.'"

What’s next for the newly-minted Ph.D. who now lives in Irving?

“I’m going back to school — shocker," she said.

She's going to get her master's degree in counseling. She wants to be a therapist. Jett’s greatest joy, she says, comes from reaching and helping people one-on-one. Five years from now she hopes to be working with clients in a successful practice. 

There’s also an alternative dream.     

“Five years from now? I’m a rock star living in Singapore making people happy,” Jett says.

Perhaps performing one of the songs she's written, like “Faded Away.”

After all, this newly-minted doctor is still a teenager.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.