In a July 2020 video posted to YouTube, Rehan Staton ’23 sits on a couch, flanked by his brother and cousin in his Bowie, Maryland, home, poised to open a letter of admittance (or rejection) from Harvard Law School. The good news that came next went viral in a way he never expected. In the midst of a pandemic, media outlets across the country were drawn to the feel-good success story of a young man from difficult circumstances who went from working as a sanitation worker to attending law school.
The quick-hit, dramatic nature of the story was real, as were the hard facts it contained, but now Staton can reflect on that moment with more perspective. It resulted in movie offers (which he turned down) but ultimately served as a reminder of where he’s come from and what brought him to law school in the first place.
Few of his grade school teachers would have thought him capable of attending law school, or even college. When Staton was 8 years old, his parents’ marriage broke up and his mother returned to her native Sri Lanka. His father struggled to keep him and his brother, Reggie, fed and warm, often working three jobs at a time. The house, which needed repairs, was drafty. Often the electricity had been turned off. Staton’s grades suffered. “One night in seventh grade, I remember you could see your breath in my own house,” he recalled. “I was wearing a jacket, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep, and I was hungry.” The next morning, he received a failing grade on a history test; in response, his teacher suggested he had a mental disability.
“I was so angry — I was hungry and freezing cold,” Staton said. “Who would do well in those conditions?” He turned away from school, focusing his energy on taekwondo and boxing, winning numerous tournaments, and attracting attention from talent scouts. But when he was a senior in high school, a rotator cuff injury sidelined him. “I was only going to last in sports as long as my body allowed me to, because when something went wrong, we didn’t have the health insurance and resources to fix it,” he said. So, he applied to college — and with a 2.0 GPA, was rejected by every single school. With few options, Staton went to work at a local sanitation company, rising at 4 a.m. to clean dumpsters and ride on the trash truck alongside men who immediately asked the 18-year-old a life-changing question: What are you doing here?
It was poetic that the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy —ex-felons and sanitation workers — saw my potential.
One of his co-workers connected him to an administrator at Bowie State University, where his application was reconsidered. He was admitted and given a scholarship for food. Staton earned a 4.0 GPA, even as he continued his job as a sanitation worker, and transferred after two years to the University of Maryland, where he would be selected as commencement speaker. “It was poetic that the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy — ex-felons and sanitation workers — saw my potential and gave me a second chance,” he said. “I was always motivated, but the variables changed so that I could be more efficient and effective in school. That made me want to find a career where I can help give other people second chances. Law seemed like an avenue where I could do that.”
But after graduating from college, Staton was sidetracked from that plan when he suffered an as-yet-undiagnosed health setback that saw him lose 30 pounds. For several months he lay on the couch, too weak to do much else, until his cousin Dominic laid it out: “He said, ‘How about we go for a goal, just to keep your mind busy?’ I started to think about law school again, simply to distract myself from how sick I was and the fact that we were in danger of losing our house to foreclosure,” he said. Later, the same cousin would suggest the video that went viral.
In his first (remote) year of law school, Staton got to know his HLS classmates by playing Among Us, a team-oriented, multiplayer game. At the same time, he continued to deal with his own medical issues while also caring for his father, who had suffered severe health complications after surgery. “It was a difficult time,” he said, but the support of his HLS classmates and professors like David Wilkins ’80 helped, whether it was offering to share study guides or, in one instance, even finding a doctor for Staton’s father. Staton also connected with alumni Theodore Wells ’76 and Kannon Shanmugam ’98 during a summer internship at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “Whatever stereotypes you might have of a big law firm — my experience was the exact opposite,” he said. “They reached out to provide assistance with my father and were also adamant about finding a doctor for my own health issues.”
Enrolled in the Education Law Clinic this past fall, Staton represented students and parents attempting to negotiate learning accommodations and individualized education plans with Boston Public Schools — work he found particularly meaningful, given his own background. When he spoke to the Bulletin for this story, he had just met his first client. “We’re working to expand his IEP due to a horrible medical mishap that occurred, but sometimes school administrators don’t agree,” he said. “We’ve been going back and forth; it’s not always pretty.”
Staton has also taken courses in employment and sports law and become interested in a related career, perhaps as an agent or a lawyer; he is doing an internship with the National Basketball Players Association. More generally, he’s been adjusting to life in a new city, getting to the bottom of his health issue, and enjoying the ability to be in the same physical space as the people he met online last year. “It’s an honor to be around my friends and my professors — being able to converse with them in person has meant a lot to me.
“Really, I just want to continue to build my community, be intentional, and try to figure out where I fit in the grand scheme of things,” he continued. “I’ve learned that life can change at the snap of a finger — and I can’t think of anything I’ve done that I achieved without the support of a community.”