This article originally appeared in the Harvard Gazette.
Reporters rushed to find Rehan Sujeewa Staton a handful of years ago when news broke that the Maryland sanitation worker had been accepted to Harvard Law School. Their various versions of a self-made American success story went viral.
Now, as Staton prepares to graduate, he wants to make one thing crystal clear: It wasn’t just him. His dad, older brother, other family, friends, professors, service staff, and even his former boss (and Tyler Perry) made it all possible in very direct and sometimes surprising ways.
“Although I get credit for working hard, working hard was the easy part because that I could control,” said Staton. “But I just happened to be around people who cared enough about me. I worked for a trash company, where my co-workers told me that I should go to college instead. I had a boss who let me leave work, go to school, and come back. I had a cousin who helped me study for the LSAT. My dad sacrificed a lot for me and my brother. I could keep going down this list. I got lucky, but I made the most of my luck,” he said.
From early on Staton understood the precariousness of life. His mother abandoned the family when he was 8. He and older brother Reggie were raised solely by their dad, Reginald. The family of three struggled to make ends meet, despite his father working two or three jobs at a time. He saw his family’s continual struggle to stay afloat, the uphill battle to do better.
Staton took to sports, first tae kwon do and then boxing, hoping that they would be the family’s ticket out of poverty. His father often helped him train at 2 or 3 in the morning, between jobs.
Overwhelmed by his family’s financial difficulties, Staton’s grades floundered in seventh grade, and teachers believed he had a learning disability. “It’s not bad to have a learning disability, but it’s bad when they’re trying to claim you have it when what happens is that you’re just going through poverty,” he said. “I was hungry in class. I didn’t have food, heat, or electricity at home.”
After high school, Staton got a job at a trash and recycling company, where his co-workers, some of whom were older and former felons, pushed him to do more with his life and go to college. It motivated him to find his way to Bowie State University, and then to transfer to the University of Maryland, where he would become the undergraduate commencement speaker.
But, he notes, the effort and sacrifice were not his alone.
Reggie dropped out of college to help with the family finances when his father had a stroke, allowing Staton to finish college while continuing to work. Staton cleaned dumpsters and collected trash from 4 a.m. until 7 a.m., and after that, he would go to classes. “I just feel grateful to my brother who was willing to sacrifice for me,” said Staton. “That motivated me to do well in college.”
The desire for a better life for him and his family was the main reason he applied to law school. Although Staton was besieged by health issues that left him bedridden for several months, he studied for the Law School Admission Test with help from his cousin Dominic Willis.
Staton was accepted to five of the nine law schools to which he applied. “When my story went viral, the media presented it as a happy story, something like ‘Garbage Man Applies to Harvard, Gets In,’” he said. “But I did it to save my family.”
The coverage was awkward, he said, but it brought his situation to the attention of media mogul Tyler Perry, who offered to pay Staton’s tuition, and to that of several law professors and attorneys who offered to help him navigate his legal training. Among those who reached out was law professor Intisar A. Rabb, director of the Program in Islamic Law at Harvard Law School, who was struck by Staton’s story, finding that parts of it felt very familiar.
“I know the differential in experiences when navigating between two different worlds,” said Rabb, who grew up in southeast Washington, D.C. “I wanted to offer what I could to bridge that gap, or to be a sounding board, or mentor someone who I knew would trace some of the same steps that I did. I always believe firmly in paying it forward. I’ve had a remarkable set of mentors who have done the same for me.”
At Harvard, Staton found a community of professors and classmates who helped him during the legendarily grueling first year, which was remote due to the pandemic. Staton relied on Rabb and Harvard Law professors Ron Sullivan and David Wilkins, all of whom helped advise him during his time at the Law School. “I couldn’t have done it alone,” Staton said. “Without my classmates, my professors, administrators, and staff, I wouldn’t have been able to get through Law School.”
To show his gratitude to the service staff, Staton organized a celebration in April, where custodians and service workers were recognized for keeping the School running. He raised money to give $100 gift certificates to each and founded “The Reciprocity Effect” to honor other such workers at universities and corporate institutions.
For Staton, who will work at a law firm in New York after graduation, honoring service workers is part of his pledge to remain mindful of all the help he has received.
“I didn’t want to change after going to Law School,” he said. “The allure is huge. I went to work in fancy places. I made cool connections and friendships. But I don’t want to forget who I am.”
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