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‘They Just Believed In Me’: A Young Black Man’s Journey from Nearly Being Placed In Special Education Classes to Law School

Rehan Staton, a 24-year-old man Maryland native, has garnered national attention for his incredible journey — one of having gone from a sanitation worker to support his family while he was in college to recently being accepted to Harvard Law School.

Staton’s road to law school was not without hardships. “My mom abandoned the family when I was eight years old,” he told Atlanta Black Star. While he describes his childhood before that point as “normal,” and “middle class,” the family faced significant challenges after her departure.

‘My dad had to work a lot of jobs,” he said in reference to his father’s struggles to support the family. Staton said that during this time he experienced food and housing insecurity, which negatively impacted his performance in the classroom. “I went from an ‘A’ student to a ‘C,’ ‘D,’ and ‘F,’ student,” he said.

By the time he reached seventh grade, a teacher suggested Staton be placed in special education classes. “My dad went into Superman-mode,” Staton said. His father went to a community center and met a man named Jamil Smart, who was an aerospace engineer for NASA.

Rehan Staton (Today Show Screengrab)

“Mr. Smart literally took me under his wing and mentored me,” he said. Mr. Smart tutored Staton at no charge to the family, and his grades began to turn around. “I started making honor roll,” he said. However, the turnaround was short lived: when Mr. Smart could no longer tutor Staton, his grades began to suffer again. Subsequent negative experiences with teachers led Staton to “hate school.” By the time he graduated from high school, his low GPA and SAT scores resulted in a rejection letter from every university to which he applied.

After graduating, Staton began to work as a sanitation worker in Bowie, Maryland. But when he got there, everyone rallied around him and encouraged him to reach higher in life and stretch to his full potential. “It was the first time in my life where people really surrounded me and said, ‘You’re smart. You need to go on and do bigger and better things,’ ” Staton said. “They just believed in me.”

Co-workers introduced Staton to school officials at Maryland’s Bowie State University, a school that previously had rejected him. A professor was impressed and convinced the administration to change its decision on Staton’s acceptance. His brother, Reggie Staton, 27, was at the time a student at Bowie studying computer science. However, once Reggie learned his brother would be attending college, he dropped out of school to go back to work to help their father support the family. Rehan said he and his father would never have told Reggie to leave school, but that he knew his brother dropped out to ensure his success.

Rehan excelled at Bowie State and eventually transferred to the University of Maryland, where he became the president of the History Undergraduate Association, was appointed to the Dean’s Advisory Board and eventually became the Commencement speaker at his own graduation in 2018.

Before Staton graduated, there was a period of time when he returned to his job as a sanitation worker while attending school full time after his dad had a stroke. “Once I finished my job…I would either go to the library, or go to my room to study, depending on how tired I was.” Throughout this time, Staton maintained his position on the dean’s list.

Struck by illness after graduation, Staton spent months at home recovering. It wasn’t until his cousin made it his duty to make sure he didn’t give up that Rehan began to study for the LSAT and pursue a career in law.

He described the moment he found out he was accepted to Harvard as “surreal.” “I lost all feeling in my body. The world stopped,” he said. Staton is considering studying sports or entertainment law though he says he is going off to school with an open mind.

He said he’s confident he’ll be successful and doesn’t feel pressured to be the one to “make it.”

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “Right now I’m just going through the motions.”

In reflecting on his journey, Staton said he lives by a quote of boxing great Muhammad Ali: “‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

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