Getting accepted to Harvard Law School this spring after years of rejection, family and financial struggles and wake-ups before dawn to work a sanitation job was a feeling that Rehan Staton will never forget.
"It was probably the most surreal moment of my life," Staton said on TODAY Monday. "After going through everything that we did as a family, I just felt that we got into Harvard, and like, I just can't even explain it. It was 'we.'''
Staton, 24, had a stable life growing up in Bowie, Maryland, until his mother left his father and moved out of the country when Rehan was 8 years old. His father then worked multiple jobs to provide for Rehan and his older brother, Reggie, but the family struggled.
"There were times where we just didn't have electricity," Staton said. "We didn't have food in the fridge."
The issues at home affected Staton's grades, which suffered during his time in middle school. A tutor from a local community center helped him improve, but his grades often fluctuated as he went through high school.
He threw his energy into boxing and martial arts, winning national and international competitions. However, his junior year he suffered rotator cuff injuries and did not have health insurance, so the injuries derailed his boxing career.
"At that time, I was really involved in sports, and I thought sports would be a way out of poverty,'' he said. "Support from my father and support from my brother, if it wasn't for those two, it would've been impossible."
Staton's poor grades and test scores as a senior resulted in him being denied by every college he applied to. He took a job collecting trash and cleaning dumpsters with Bates Trucking and Trash, where most of his colleagues were formerly incarcerated.
Rather than add to his despair, the job marked a turning point. His co-workers uplifted him and urged him to go back to school, which led to a meeting with one of the owners, Brent Bates, who helped him enroll in Bowie State University.
"It was the first time in my life a group of individuals that weren't my father or my brother that just came around me and supported me,'' he said. "It was the first time in my life a group of people really just empowered me, uplifted me, told me I was intelligent. I believed in the hype, and I was ready to go to school."
Reggie Staton, 27, who was already attending Bowie State University, saw the promise of his brother and made the sacrifice of dropping out of school so that Rehan could attend and Reggie could help their father. Rehan achieved a 4.0 grade-point average and then transferred to the University of Maryland.
"I actually just had a support system the second time around,'' Staton said. "In high school, I just didn't have the support, and when I got to undergrad, I had teachers, other students, leaders. Holistically, I just couldn't fail at that point. Too much support."
Staton's desire to improve his life came from witnessing his dad's sacrifices for their family.
"Watching my father work anywhere between one and three jobs, giving up his entire social life just to give my brother and I the basic needs — I was hungry, if that makes sense,'' he said. "I was really hungry, but also at the same time, I just really wanted to succeed."
Staton's father suffered a stroke in 2017, when Staton was a junior at Maryland, prompting him to return to work at Bates Trucking and Trash with his brother so they could save their home. Staton would start work at 4 a.m. so he could get in a shift before classes.
He persevered to receive numerous accolades on his way to earning an undergraduate degree in history in 2018, when he was selected as a student commencement speaker at graduation.
Following graduation, he worked full time with the Robert Bobb Group, a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., while studying for his LSAT exam. He scored in the 80th percentile on the test.
The student who once got denied by every college he applied to in high school was accepted by the law schools at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Pepperdine and the University of Southern California this spring.
A GoFundMe page to help pay for Staton's law school expenses has raised over $170,000.
"If you put in the effort and the work and you stay committed, things will fall into place," he said.