Education advocate Cortlan Wickliff

Wickliff, who earns his Harvard law degree this month, assesses how his generation is handling the challenges facing young people in the U.S.

As a Rice University undergrad, Cortlan Wickliff conducted research in biofuels and biomedicine and, at age 19, was the youngest African American male to earn a bioengineering degree from the school. At age 22, he's blazed a new trail as one of the two youngest African American males to graduate from Harvard Law School. The Austin, TX native was active in the Tavis Smiley Foundation's Youth to Leaders program as a teen and has given back by hosting educational outreach forums and mentoring/tutoring other students. This fall, he begins work on a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, with a goal of enhancing medical equipment and medical treatments.


Tavis: So often these days the media focuses on negative stereotypes about young Black men, rather than giving a much more nuanced portrait. So it always gives me great pleasure to address that issue head-on.

I’ve known Cortlan Wickliff since he was just 10 years old. At 15 he entered Rice University, becoming the youngest African American to earn a degree in bioengineering, but he didn’t stop there. He’s now barely 22 and about to earn his law degree in a matter of weeks from Harvard.

Still not done, this fall – don’t ask me why – he’s going back to school at Texas A&M to get a Ph.D. in engineering. I am honored to welcome my friend, my young friend, Cortlan Wickliff to this program. Cortlan, first of all, congratulations.

Cortlan Wickliff: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

Tavis: No, I’m glad to have you on, man. This has been – it’s been quite a journey for me to have met you when you were 10 and to have followed you all these years, and I can’t get to Cambridge on May 30th for your graduation, so I figured I’d get you to come out here.

Wickliff: Yeah.

Tavis: So I can tell you congratulations here before everybody else gets to tell you congratulations. It’s clear, with a degree from Rice, Harvard law, going back this fall for a Ph.D. in engineering, it’s clear that the education bug bit you long ago. How’d that happen for you?

Wickliff: Well, for me it’s always been about goals. So one of the goals that I set pretty early on for myself is that I wanted to own and start a biomedical device company, and so when I was figuring out what that path looked like, my mom sat down with me and she said, “Well, other people who have done it have had these credentials,” and to me, that wasn’t enough.

So I said okay, well, a Ph.D., that’s good, but I love the law. I often got criticized for practicing law without a license, so I said to myself, well, (laughter) since you told me to stop doing it without a license, let me go get this license I keep hearing about.

So I set out that plan when I was actually about 10, and as you know, I’ve been saying I was going to do it for so long, and I’m just, I’m glad to be able to follow through.

Tavis: Yeah. Why engineering?

Wickliff: Well, those were the people who got to do the most exciting things to me. So my mom is, of course, a mechanical engineer, and she always got to tinker with things, take things apart, and that’s what I wanted to do.

I got in trouble quite a few times for taking things apart, and at the time I didn’t have the skills to put them back together. (Laughter)

But I picked it up, so last year I took apart our TV, put it back together, and it was fixed, and she was happy that I had broken a few things before, so. (Laughter) That was the big thing to me. They got to do the exciting work, and that’s the stuff I wanted to do.

Tavis: Yeah. You know full well, because you mentor a lot of young people, and I want to come back to the mentoring work, that I’ve tried to mentor you, and you’re paying it forward by mentoring other young people. So I want to come back to the mentoring in a second here.

You know full well that in this country, across the board, not just for Black students or students of color, but across the board America has a problem with STEM.

Wickliff: Yes.

Tavis: It’s not that we’re not teaching it, we don’t have students excelling as they should in science and technology and engineering and math, so these STEM programs are being supported by major companies all across the country, trying to get more kids into that pipeline.

What say you to young people about why they ought to consider that pipeline, and why are we having these troubles getting young people interested?

Wickliff: Well, I think it actually is the responsibility of people in my age demographic, so the young engineers. We have to make it accessible, because it is really hard for somebody to go to somebody who’s a manager, who’s been in the industry for 40 years, and understand that pathway to get to being an engineer.

Then also, we have to demystify it a little bit. A lot of things that engineers do people do all the time. It’s just that they don’t realize that they’re doing engineering. So when I was younger, we would have things that would break around the house. Our table would be wobbly.

We would identify the problem, we would come up with a simple solution, and we would implement it. That’s what engineering is. But if you focus on the high-level questions rather than focusing on what engineering is at its core, you sometimes get a disconnect from younger students.

So I find the best way to do it is just demystify. Show them what the engineering process is, and then get them to apply it to everyday life and get comfortable with it.

Tavis: We know that famously, Dr. King, who you and I have had many conversations about, you know my regard for Dr. King as the greatest American I believe this country has ever produced.

King famously goes to Morehouse at 15. You went to Rice at 15. Give me some sense of what it’s like to be on a college campus, sitting in classes, engineering classes, when you’re a Black male 15-year-old.

Wickliff: Well, it’s – I was always raised that you’re just designed to stand out, and so that was never a problem for me. I was excited to get to meet all these new people, get to get exposed to so many different things. So the biggest thing for me was I had to remind people of my age, because I would regularly get put in situations.

For instance, got a job one time, and because my resume was so extensive they didn’t realize how young I was. So they actually weren’t supposed to hire somebody under 17. They hadn’t seen a 17-year-old who had already been in college for two, three years, so they were a bit surprised by that. (Laughter)

So that’s actually the only challenge that I really faced, but it’s largely because I had a lot of grounding and I was exposed to higher education at a young age. So it just felt normal to me. I felt comfortable.

Tavis: Yeah. So you do Rice. After Rice, there are a lot of law schools that you could go to. I see what you’re trying to do, you want to own this company so you want to have a legal background, you want to have an engineering background so you know how to run the company in all facets of the company. I get that part.

But of all the law schools you could have gone to, why Harvard, and how did that happen, because Harvard is Harvard.

Wickliff: (Laughs) Yes. Well, the reason why is because, of course, Harvard is Harvard.

Tavis: Right.

Wickliff: So when I was younger, asking, “Well, what’s the best law school I could go to so I can really be the best at running this company,” my mom told me Harvard. So I said, “Okay, well, that’s the law school I need to go to.”

Tavis: But let me jump in right quick before you finish the other story. Is that a question that you routinely asked yourself? Because that’s a very important question you just raised, and I wonder the extent to which you have been successful because you always start by asking the right question, which is what is the best out there.

Wickliff: Yes, I think that that’s really important, and it’s not just so – I don’t want to say the best being the number one ranked or the best being some abstract idea of best, but really the best for you.

I think a lot of times people don’t ask that question. So for me, going back to Rice undergrad, Rice undergrad was the best for me. It was in Houston, I got to be near family, and it was a close, tight-knit campus, so I got a lot of interaction with my professors.

So it was the best school for me, and I think that that was the question I also asked when I was going to Harvard – is this the best school for me, as well as the best so that I can get to my goals.

Tavis: And how was the experience? Did it turn out to be a good one for you?

Wickliff: Yes. Harvard is a wonderful school. They have a lot of great professors. That’s, I think, the thing that sets them apart from the rest, is that they bring in some talented people that are really willing to mentor students and take time out of their schedule to help you succeed.

So one of the most invaluable experiences I got was that Harvard actually allows you to work with start-up businesses, and I had some good professors mentoring me on how I can help these start-up companies get off the ground, and so it was really great.

Tavis: So you go into Harvard law at about 19. Just between the two of us, did you ever feel intimidated or in over your head when you got there?

Wickliff: So I have to give a shout-out to Rice again. Their bioengineering program beat me up so much, there was really (laughter) nothing that felt intimidating after the all-nighters that I had to pull to get through that program.

Tavis: Right.

Wickliff: But I will say that it really – it’s a really wonderful realization when you realize how great the student body is, and so I always felt like if I couldn’t handle it, I knew somebody else who could handle it and show me how. So the camaraderie you develop and the alumni network is just wonderful.

Tavis: To your point now, I’ve always believed that one of the most significant advantages to going to these big Ivy League schools, particularly the Harvard law school, is not just the high-quality education you get, but the contacts that you make.

The people in your classroom at Harvard law are the people who you know are going to be running the world. So tell me about those relationships that you’ve established now at such a young age that you’ll be able to call upon for the rest of your life.

Wickliff: Well, I think the big thing about going into those relationships and I kind of took from our relationship, which is you always try to bring something to the table. So for me, making sure that I’m there for people, people will be there for me, and I was really happy to see how down-to-earth the student body was.

I found some people who were down-home Southern, just like me, and we had some cookouts, barbeques, threw down on some gumbo. It was wonderful. (Laughter) So it’s really nice that no matter where you go, people are people.

Tavis: Yeah. You mentioned a wonderful notion earlier in this conversation of demystifying these places that just frighten and scare and intimidate people. Over the years of your being at Harvard law school, you had some young people come to class with you.

Wickliff: Yes, yes.

Tavis: The purpose of that was what?

Wickliff: Well, so it’s real easy for me to say, “You can do it too.” It’s a whole nother experience when you sit in the classroom and you say, “Oh, I actually understand what the professor’s saying.”

I put them at somewhat of a disadvantage, because I had actually brought them in in the middle of the semester just to show you weren’t here yesterday, you won’t be here tomorrow, but just today you were able to pick up in the middle of our conversation and get the material.

I even had one of my high school mentees. He went to class with me and he had this idea. He didn’t want to say it, so I’m like, “Okay, what’s your idea?” Raised my hand, said it. The professor said, “Oh, that’s a great point,” and he felt real good.

Tavis: Oh, he was afraid to say it.

Wickliff: Yes.

Tavis: But he whispered it to you and you said it.

Wickliff: Yes.

Tavis: And the professor said, “Great question.”

Wickliff: Yes, yes. (Laughter) A lot of times, people, they think that they’re somehow not getting something or they can’t be right, and just showing them that no, you got it, you can be here, you can do this. Not only can you do this, but you can do this great.

Tavis: Yeah. You were at Rice and you were at the Harvard law school not because you’re Black but because you are gifted, because you are talented. You happen to be in a Black body. But what say you about not, again, just this achievement gap, but about this opportunity gap in America where young Black men and young people of color, for that matter, are concerned?

Wickliff: Well, I think the problem and the answer, we see it on this stage, which is on other stages they don’t have positive Black role models, and here, you do. I think that more people, if they push forth the positive Black role model, you’ll show people what they can do.

If all you see when you look on TV, looking for people who look like you, is criminals, who’s on the news today and things like that, that’s what you’re going to believe is kind of your maximum capability.

So for me, I was very blessed that I got to interact with some young Black professionals at an early age, and know that no, this is the options laid out before me. I don’t have any other ones but to be like them. So I think that going forward, we could really positively affect this achievement gap if we really put forth the positive images and not just emphasize the negative.

Tavis: Yeah. Finally, say a quick word about your mama. She’s in the corner off-camera, so (laughter) the audience cannot see her, but she ain’t never too far from her baby.

Wickliff: Yeah.

Tavis: I love your mother, because she is the one that brought you to see me –

Wickliff: Yes.

Tavis: – when you were just 10, and we became fast friends when you were just a kid standing in a book line to get one of my books, and I’ll never forget it for as long as I live. But your mother has been awfully supportive of you.

Wickliff: Yes. Truth be told, she’s not only been supportive of me, but she’s supportive of everybody around us. So all of my cousins, any family friends, they always know they can count on her to be there for something positive.

Earlier in the week she was at one of my cousin’s track meets just because he had gone to regionals, and for me, she taught me that it’s not just about your professional responsibility.

So as a lawyer going forward, as an engineer, as a business owner, I’m going to have some professional responsibilities. But no matter how substantial or how taxing those professional responsibilities are, I’m always going to have the personal responsibilities.

So I’m always going to have the responsibility to take time out of my schedule, make sure I make my way back to Houston, and make sure I can pick up the phone and talk to some people who they’re trying to either follow in my footsteps or do something bigger, which for me it’s always about I want you to be doing something bigger than me.

So I’m really enamored, I’m really fascinated about that idea of if I can help you, you can use me as the shoulder you stand on, and you do something bigger.

Tavis: That’s why I love Cortlan Wickliff. (Laughter) That’s why I love this kid. He ain’t a kid – I love this young man. I’ve known him since he was a kid. Take a look at that face, Jonathan X. I want the audience to look at that face. (Laughter) You’re going to see it again; you’re going to hear the name Cortlan Wickliff again.

He is 22, now on his way to Texas A&M to get a Ph.D. in engineering. I’m honored to have had him on this program. Before you leave, a couple things I want to give to you since I will not be in Cambridge on May the 30th. First is an envelope with something in it. You cannot open this until May 30th. Whatever you do, don’t lose it.

Wickliff: I won’t.

Tavis: If you do, call me so I can stop payment. (Laughter) Number two, this is a collector’s item. We only have – only my staff has it. This is the 10th – as you can see by this sign here –

Wickliff: Yes.

Tavis: – it’s the 10th anniversary of our show, so I’ve known you longer than I’ve been doing this show. (Laughter) It’s our 10th anniversary season, we’re about to do our 2,000th episode, and just for the staff here we had these custom-made “Tavis Smiley” jackets.

Wickliff: Oh.

Tavis: So it’s got our logo on the front right here, and then on the back it’s got “Tavis 10.” I knew you were coming so I ordered an extra one for me.

Wickliff: Yes, thank you.

Tavis: There you go.

Wickliff: And you got it in Rice colors.

Tavis: There you go.

Wickliff: I’m very happy about this. (Laughter)

Tavis: There you go. Congratulations (unintelligible).

Wickliff: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s my man Cortlan.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 20, 2013 at 11:20 am