TORONTO -- While some people may perceive the time in Rehan Staton’s life when he collected trash for a living as a low point for him, he says it was actually the first time he felt uplifted by his community and encouraged to follow his dreams.

Those three years after high school, working for the Bates Trucking & Trash Removal sanitation company in Maryland, gave Staton the push he needed to pursue a higher education.

“That was the first time in my life where someone outside my family, or just people as a whole, gave me a sense of community and embraced me from a mental capacity standpoint, and just told me ‘Hey, why are you here? Go try college, go try this, try that. And if you need to, come back, but this is always going to be here for you,’” he told CTV News Channel on Monday.

Those supportive words came from Staton’s co-workers who, he explained, had all been formerly incarcerated.

“They were the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. So to me, it was so surprising that these were the people who are uplifting me. It was just so surprising,” he said.

Staton said he had taken the job at the sanitation company after high school in order to help his father pay the bills. The family had struggled to make ends meet after his mother left his father to raise Staton and his older brother alone.

Growing up, Staton said his family experienced food and housing insecurity as his father worked multiple jobs to support them.

Despite those obstacles, Staton was determined to become a professional fighter after he graduated high school. He trained in martial arts and boxing and won several international and national titles before he suffered a dream-ending double-rotator cuff injury in Grade 12.

Staton said he scrambled to apply to colleges before the school year was done, but he was rejected by every school.

That’s when he decided to work for the sanitation company, to help his father while his older brother was in college.

It was there that Staton received some much-needed encouragement from his co-workers and refocused his attention on school.

Recognizing his younger brother’s potential in academia, Staton’s older brother dropped out of college to help their father so Staton could go to college instead.

Four years later, Staton completed his undergraduate studies and began working for a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. while he studied for the LSAT.

Now, he’s preparing to begin studies at Harvard Law School in the fall, when he’s anticipating taking virtual classes. To help him pay his tuition, Staton said he has received grants from the school and a GoFundMe page created on his behalf has raised more than US$177,000 so far.

“People are just wonderful,” he said. “So this time around it’ll be much more of a comfortable journey. I'm very fortunate.”

With files from CNN