CAMBRIDGE — On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 22-year-old Cortlan Wickliff walks into a pizzeria looking every bit the college student, with headphones, braces, and slightly overgrown hair. Finals are over, and there’s not much to do but have dinner with friends and watch movies, lots of movies, until graduation.
Oh, and start studying for the bar exam.
When Wickliff dons his cap and gown, regalia his mother had to remind him to order, the Texas native will be one of the youngest African-Americans ever to graduate from Harvard Law School.
Wickliff was 19 when he graduated from Houston's Rice University with a degree in bioengineering in 2010. That fall he started law school, but said the age gap with his classmates, about five to six years, was not the biggest issue.
“Being at a school where there aren’t any right answers when you have been in engineering or sciences classes, that’s a bit of a change,” he said with a shrug. “School was different because of my engineering background, being from the South, being from Texas, rather than different because of my age.”
There is no age requirement for admission to Harvard Law; school administrators said the average age in the graduating Class of 2013 is 27. Students need strong test scores and grades. But more than anything, they must show an aptitude for advocating a point of view, something proven through work experience, extracurricular activities, volunteering, leadership positions.
“This is really about the classroom debate,” said Jessica Soban, an assistant dean and chief admissions officer at the law school. “In order to become an effective attorney, you have to be an effective advocate. And becoming an effective advocate comes with having your opinions and thoughts challenged in the classroom.”
As a first-year law student, Wickliff seemed “puzzled and a bit overwhelmed” by the classroom comments made by his older and more experienced colleagues, said professor Charles Ogletree. But, as the semester progressed, Wickliff matured, Ogletree said.
And by the time Wickliff submitted his final criminal law paper as a second-year student, Ogletree said, “I saw remarkable advancement in his ability to comprehend complex legal issues but also present them in straightforward fashion.”
Wickliff’s paper was on the crack cocaine epidemic and resulting mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that mandate certain amounts of jail time for certain crimes.
A law school degree is the second in a three-degree plan Wickliff created as an elementary school student. He decided to own and operate a medical device company, all before age 26. He learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Boston University with a doctorate in theology at 26 and thought: “That seems really cool. I want to do that, too.”
Wickliff initially wanted to be a doctor, but not being a fan of blood, he opted to build the devices that help doctors do their work. His resolve strengthened at 10 when his father died of a heart attack in a Texas town without a hospital.
“That’s when I started learning about point-of-care devices, which are basically medical devices that are portable so a doctor can be anywhere,” he said. “Those are the types of devices I’m going to try and start my company with.”
Wickliff shared his dream with his mother, and they hatched a plan, deciding he would need an engineering degree; a business or law degree (“Because if you're going to own a business, you either need a business degree or a law degree,” he said); and a PhD, which he will begin pursuing this fall at Texas A&M University, his mother’s alma mater. Ogletree will sit on Wickliff’s dissertation committee.
Wickliff opted for a law degree. When his mother was an MBA student, Wickliff sat through most of her classes and group discussions. He was there because his mother could not afford a baby sitter, but he managed to absorb many of the lessons, even offering advice to a study group or two.
He was 10.
Wickliff’s mother said she and his father “realized that he seemed a little unique probably about 3 years old.” They began working to feed his insatiable curiosity. The boy loved taking apart electronics to figure out how they worked. He skipped the first grade, the 11th, and the 12th. He started college at 15,, law school at 19.
“He thinks it’s not extraordinary,” said his mother, Tanya Dugat Wickliff, who calls the youngest of her three sons “very unassuming.”
Dugat Wickliff said she always encouraged her son’s passions. “I wanted him to be comfortable because he got picked on quite a bit by adults and kids because he talked too much, he asked too many questions,” she said. He would go to the field with his grandfather who was a farmer and want to know the components of the hay. “I felt I needed to be that safe haven to him,” she said.
The first step in that plan came to fruition by happenstance. His mother was working at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, and a guest speaker did a presentation about a special program at the University of North Texas for high-achieving high school students. Students lived on campus, took college courses, and earned college credits during the two-year program.
She mentioned it in passing to her 14-year-old son, who said nonchalantly: “Oh, really? I think I’ll do that, too.” To him, it seemed like a natural next step. To his mother, it seemed like unleashing her barely pubescent baby boy unto the world.
“My mom cried about it,” he said.
She did more than that. “I had to pray about it,” she said. But she let him go.
The week after Wickliff’s 15th birthday, he moved more than three hours away to live among his intellectual peers. Two years later, he transferred to Rice.
Without drinking and partying, things he still does not do heavily, Wickliff said his was a pretty standard college experience. He tutored freshmen and mentored high school students, showing them that college and engineering were a possibility. He said he took “a few extra risks” with his grades by participating in so many extracurricular activities. But the risks, he said, were necessary. “Whenever you go somewhere,” he said, “you’re supposed to leave it better than when you came.”
It’s a philosophy he carried with him to law school, where he had a déjà vu experience with people forgetting his age.
At Rice, Wickliff often found himself hanging out with friends, not sure where they were headed, and ending up at a pub. “I’m like, ‘Y’all realize I’m 17, right? I can’t get in.’ ”
It was the same thing at Harvard, except he was 19. Classmates kept inviting him to meet up at local pubs and assumed he was being antisocial when he turned them down. “People would think ‘I can’t come’ meant I was busy studying,” he said. “It never dawned on me that people didn’t realize how much younger than them I was.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @akjohnson1922.