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Former Pflugerville student a Harvard Law grad at 22

May 31, 2013
Benjamin Wermund, Austin American Stateman

Cortlan Wickliff attended his first college course at 8 years old, when his mom, working on her master’s degree in executive business, would take him along to her classes because she didn’t have a baby sitter. Not long after that, he set his sights on getting a law degree.

Now 22, Wickliff, who attended Pflugerville High School, graduated from Harvard Law School on Thursday as one of the youngest African-Americans to earn a law degree from the school. Harvard officials said they do not have complete records, but Wickliff is probably the youngest since 1947, when John Robinson Wilkins graduated at 21. The average age of a Harvard Law grad is 27.

Wickliff, who got his bachelor’s degree in bioengineering at Rice University, says the key was setting his goals at a very young age and staying focused on them. He says anybody could do the same thing, with a supportive family.

“Any child can do the same thing I’ve done, and I would hope a lot of kids will do better than I’ve done,” Wickliff said. “I’d definitely say having my mom as my cheerleader, even when nobody else believed in what I was saying, that made a world of difference. If you’re talking to a 10-year-old who wants a Ph.D., law degree and a medical degree, it sounds a bit far-fetched.”

Wickliff remembers wanting to invent medical devices as far back as the second or third grade.

But when he was 10, his father died of a heart attack in his hometown of Liberty — more than 30 minutes from the nearest major hospital — and that goal changed.

“That was the point at which I shifted my focus — instead of making the newest, most high-tech device — to making the device most needed right now,” Wickliff said.

As a 10-year-old, he spoke at his father’s funeral.

“He talked about how God wouldn’t call his dad home if he hadn’t fulfilled his purpose. So that’s what we had to do now, is fulfill our purpose,” Wickliff’s mother, Tanya Dugat-Wickliff, said. “He tore everybody up.”

The law degree is just another step for Wickliff, who plans to go to Texas A&M for a doctorate in engineering.

Wickliff said he hopes the education will allow him to develop new point-of-care devices — portable emergency medical devices — as well as work to make medical equipment more affordable, so it can be accessible in more places.

“There are plenty of places, even in Texas, where people are 30 minutes to an hour from the nearest hospital,” Wickliff said. “You pre-emptively put people in a situation where they’re less likely to survive, because they have so far to travel.”

Wickliff figures the law degree will help him run a business, though getting the degree wasn’t directly related to his goal. In grade school, Wickliff would read the rule books teachers handed out at the beginning of the year and use those rules to defend his fellow students when they got in trouble. Wickliff said growing up, his mother frequently accused him of “practicing law without a license.”

“In my mind, I said, ‘Well, I need to get a license, whatever that is,’ ” Wickliff said.

Wickliff was always vocal about his goals, his brother Jamar Dugat said.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m going to be an engineer, and then I’m going to law school,’ ” Dugat said. “He’s done exactly what he said he was going to do ever since he was a youngster.”

By Benjamin Wermund - American-Statesman Staff

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