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Poverty, sacrifice, success: Rehan Staton went from working sanitation to acceptance to Harvard Law School

Rehan Staton and his brother, Reggie, with Staton's Harvard Law School acceptance letter
Rehan Staton and his brother, Reggie, with Staton's Harvard Law School acceptance letter (Courtesy Photo)

Moving from sanitation worker to Harvard Law student obviously shows great work ethic, but Rehan Staton said he was surprised news organizations have focused on those two aspects of his story.

“It was the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy that uplifted me, embraced me, whereas the role models of society such as teachers ... denied me,” Staton said.

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There is so much more to Staton’s story than his previous job and his new opportunity. His story is one of perseverance, family sacrifice and support from unexpected places.

The Bowie resident had to wake up before 5 a.m. to work his shift as a sanitation worker before attending classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he studied history. On rare occasions, when he was running late, he wasn’t able to shower before attending and had to sit in the back of the class.

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Some days he had to return to his sanitation job after class to finish his shift.

He was accepted into Harvard Law School on March 16, but his story became national news after he posted on June 25 to Facebook an open letter to his older brother Reggie.

“You put yourself in a profession where people would look down on you so that people could look up to me,” Staton wrote in his letter.

Staton views the early years of his upbringing as a time of privilege. He was born in Bowie to two working parents and attended private school.

Then his mother, who he described as abusive, left. The Sri Lankan native returned home when Staton was 8, leaving his father to care for him and his brother.

After his mother left, the family battled food insecurity and struggled financially. Staton said his house didn’t have heat during the winter, and he would be so cold and hungry at home that it was impossible to focus once he got to school. His grades slipped.

At a time in his life when he desperately needed support, in seventh grade, Staton’s teachers provided none. Instead, Staton said, they told his dad he should be placed in special education classes.

It was at this point that Staton’s father visited a local community center in search of a tutor. Jamil Smart, or Mr. Smart, as he was known to Staton, agreed to tutor Staton and did it for free. But to Staton, Smart was more than a tutor.

“He ended up giving me food when I was hungry, he let me escape over to his house whenever I needed to get away, he became a whole, holistic mentor,” Staton said.

Staton’s grades improved under Smart’s tutelage, but following seventh grade, Smart wasn’t able to assist Staton and his grades fell again.

Despite his struggles in the classroom, Staton said he was excelling athletically, especially in martial arts, where he found “peace.”

Staton’s athletic aspirations were crushed in 10th grade when he developed debilitating digestive issues after taking a protein supplement. After returning to the sport, he injured both of his shoulders.

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Without health insurance, Staton said he wasn’t able to get the treatment he needed.

With martial arts off the table, Staton applied to college but was rejected on account of his low GPA and test scores by each one he applied to, including Bowie State University, where Reggie was a student at the time.

Staton began working for a sanitation company, cleaning and painting Dumpsters among other jobs, to help his dad pay the bills. It was at the sanitation company that Staton began receiving the support he needed.

“This is where everything in my life changes,” he said. “Everyone comes around me and embraces me and lifts me up.”

With the support of his co-workers and the help of a Bowie State professor, Staton successfully appealed his denial from the university. Because his father still needed help paying the bills, Reggie, without telling his father or his brother, opted to drop-out to support their father and allow his brother to attend.

“If he was the older brother and I was the younger brother, I have no doubt in my mind that he would’ve done the same thing,” Reggie Staton said.

Once at Bowie State, Rehan Staton found the support system he lacked and excelled academically.

After two years at Bowie State, Staton transferred to the University of Maryland, where he made dean’s list every semester and he served as president of the History Undergraduate Association, among other leadership roles.

Life’s challenges followed him to College Park. During his junior year, his father had a stroke. Staton resumed working sanitation to support the family.

Despite working before and sometimes after classes, Staton closed out his time at UMD as the university’s commencement speaker for the fall class of 2018.

But life’s challenges didn’t relent.

After graduating, Staton became so ill that he was unable to follow through on the job offers he received. He said he felt nauseous every waking hour for months.

“I literally thought I was dying,” said Staton.

Still lacking health insurance, he couldn’t pursue proper treatment and his father was forced to push back their mortgage to feed his son. Cousin Dominic Willis, who visited Staton often in the summer of 2019, said he remembered Staton being couch-ridden for months and losing weight.

It was Willis who convinced him to apply to law school that summer, to “challenge” himself.

Staton eventually landed a job with The Robert Bobb Group, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., where he found a mentor in chief operating officer Patrick Bobb.

Bobb said Staton would send him videos of himself studying for the Law School Administration Test, or LSAT, at 4:30 a.m., teasing him for still being in bed. But the videos were also symbolic of Staton’s dedication.

Staton was eventually accepted into law schools at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Pepperdine University and the University of Southern California. He was wait-listed at UCLA, Berkeley, Georgetown University and New York University.

A GoFundMe page set up by Staton’s communications coach has raised over $180,000 to help him with expenses. Staton also said a representative from Tyler Perry Studios offered to help with expenses.

Harvard Law classes will be online as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Staton will study from his home in Bowie, where he can continue to care for his father, whose health has declined since his stroke.

“Life isn’t fair, but don’t quit and live the rest of your life as a champion. … You just gotta suck it up and keep it moving,” he said.

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