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Harvard Law grad, 22, heads to College Station for Ph.D.

June 6, 2013
Kyrie O'Connor, Houston Chronicle

This is for students and for all the parents who think their little snowflakes are the brightest things ever: I'm about to ruin your day.

Meet Cortlan Wickliff. Last week, he became one of only two African-American men to graduate from Harvard Law School at the age of 22. Good enough? Not for Cortlan. Later this year, he's headed to Texas A&M to start on his doctorate in engineering.

Cortlan has always moved faster than those around him. In third grade (He notes, "I was 7. I'd already skipped a grade.") he did a report on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and learned that King earned a Ph.D. when he was 26. He decided he wanted to do the same, and that he wanted both an engineering and a law degree.

And here's where the parents come in. "My mom could have told me that was impossible, but she said 'OK, let's do the research on what it takes to do that,' " he says "Every time I had a hard time in school, she reminded me of my goal."

Cortlan, who is the youngest of three boys, lost his father when he was 10, but he strongly remembers his support. "My dad used to call me 'doctor' all the time."

The family has lived all over Texas but counts Liberty as where they're from. His mother, Tanya Dugat-Wickliff, earned her doctorate from A&M eight years ago in the same program her son is entering.

Right after Cortlan turned 15, he entered the University of North Texas. "Most moms would not be OK with a son moving three-and-a-half hours from home by himself," he says. "My mom had the option of saying no."

Later, he transferred to Rice University, graduating at 19 with a degree in bioengineering.

Cortlan hastens to explain that he doesn't have his nose in books all the time. He loves movies and has seen more than 2,000. This summer, he's enjoyed "Fast & Furious 6" and "Iron Man 3" most. And he welcomes the chance to trounce you in dominos. Also, sleep. "Sleep is one of my favorite pastimes," says Cortlan, like every student ever.

After being hospitalized at 10 with an infection, Cortlan developed an interest in medical devices that carries on to this day. Eventually, he'd like to run a medical-device company. He's especially interested in developing cheap, portable equipment that can improve medical care in rural areas.

Becoming a doctor was out. "I realized really quickly that I was not a fan of blood and gore," he says.

Cortlan believes his law degree will help him run a company. He did his research, of course. "There are not as many engineers in boardrooms, but more law and business degrees," he reasons.

Besides, he always liked the law. "My mom used to be concerned because I'd read the whole student handbook before I'd sign it."

Another value instilled by his parents is that of giving back to the community. "We were taught to leave the world better than we found it," Cortlan says.

In the end, he places all the credit on his parents. "Sometimes you just need one or two people to believe your goal is possible."

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