Rehan Staton told "Good Morning America" his family had a privileged life in Bowie, Maryland, until his mother left the country and his father lost his job.
He said his father started working up to three jobs at a time. Food became scarce, and sometimes heat was a luxury the family could not afford.
With insecurity at home, Staton's grades slipped. When he reached seventh grade, his father found an aerospace engineer who offered to tutor him free of charge, and his grades started to improve.
During his high school tenure, Staton said he trained to become a professional boxer. He suffered severe tendonitis in both shoulders his senior year, so while the injury wasn't career-ending, he didn't have medical insurance and therefore physical therapy wasn't an option.
He shifted his focus to academics and applied to several colleges but was rejected by all. As his body recovered, he took a job as a trash collector at a local sanitation company.
He said his crew mates encouraged his intellect and had the most profound influence on his trajectory.
"They would say, 'You're smart. You're too young to be here. Go to college, and come back if it doesn't work out,'" he told "GMA."
"Teachers, church leaders, and other upper-echelon people known for being a role model in society were the ones that never saw anything in me," he continued. "It was the sanitation workers that lifted me up to make me even want to go to school."
Staton said coworkers put him in touch with a professor at Bowie State University, a school that previously rejected him, but the professor was impressed and convinced administrators to reverse their decision.
Going to school meant Staton's older brother, Reggie, needed to drop out of college to support the family.
"My brother knew I'd be stuck if I didn't jump on this opportunity and go to school because of my grades," Staton told "GMA."
Staton earned a 4.0 GPA and later matriculated to the University of Maryland, where he became immersed with campus life and ultimately spoke at graduation for the class of 2018.
The entire time, he continued to work in sanitation to make ends meet.
After graduation, he landed a job at a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., took the LSAT and applied to several law schools.
He was accepted to the University of Southern California, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania as well as Harvard, where he's enrolled for the fall 2020 semester.
In a letter posted to Facebook, Staton credited his brother Reggie for his success.
"How can I not laugh when people say that I'm 'self-made?' Straight up, I wouldn't have made it here without you," he wrote.