From Trash Truck to Commencement Stage
In Face of Obstacles, Student Speaker Shows Heart of Champion in Reaching Academic Goals
Getting up at dawn every day to ride a trash truck or refurbish dumpsters to help support his family before attending classes at UMD, Rehan Staton would repeat a famous mantra from Muhammad Ali: “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
And he didn’t quit. Despite facing obstacles that could have wilted anyone’s determination, Staton has earned a history degree, propelled himself instead toward a legal career and become the student speaker at the university's main commencement ceremony on Dec. 18.
Growing up in Bowie, Md., with a loving and supportive single father, Staton overcame negative expectations such as hearing someone say he was more likely to end up in jail than a college classroom. Although he once dreamed of becoming a professional boxer, rotator cuff injuries derailed his athletic pursuits. Instead, after graduating from high school, he got a job at a trucking company, hauling garbage and painting dumpsters.
His co-workers had a simple message: Don’t stay here with us.
“If it wasn’t for them,” he said, “I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
Staton enrolled in 2014 at Bowie State University, then two years later transferred to UMD, succeeding with a 3.84 GPA. With his family facing health and housing problems, he rose at 4 a.m. each day to ride a truck or paint, listen to self-recorded versions of his notes before going to school, and then return to work after class to finish his shift.
“UMD changed my life forever,” he said. “It was the greatest decision of my life.”
Asim Ali, a senior lecturer in American Studies who taught Staton, remembers meeting him for the first time while locked out of the Art-Sociology Building, where he was supposed to teach. Staton swiped him in—and turned out to be enrolled in the class.
“It was minor, but it was really striking,” he said. “No one else noticed their professor was stuck outside the building.”
Ali and Staton have kept in touch, and Ali has often counseled him that any academic struggles are the product of a lack of practice or familiarity—not a lack of ability.
“He’s got such a deep and abiding interest in social justice,” Ali said. “It would be hard not to see him go on to do great things.”
In addition to making the Dean’s List every semester at UMD, Staton also served as president of the History Undergraduate Association, the Department of History representative for the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Advisory Board and the student representative for the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Cabinet. He was also given the 2017 Office of Multi-ethnic Student Education Academic Excellence Award.
Since she started advising Staton in his first semester at UMD, Paula Nadler, assistant director for student affairs in the College of Arts and Humanities, has seen him become more willing to take chances and pursue new opportunities.
“He came in here smart. He came in with an incredible internal strength,” she said. “But his willingness to put himself out there is the biggest change.”
Staton is currently weighing several job opportunities and plans to attend law school in the fall of 2020 and represent ex-convicts and death row inmates.
“I want to advocate for those incarcerated who have experienced injustices and whose voices are often suppressed,” he said.