He's spent nearly 20 years sweeping the halls of Columbia University
– and now, Gac Filipaj has graduated from them.
On May 13, after juggling a dual existence – student by day and janitor by night – for nearly 12 years, the Bronx resident received his degree in Classics, with honors.
"For me, the dream was always about education," Fiipaj, 52, a native of Montenegro who immigrated to New York from war-torn former Yugoslavia in 1992.
After asking his ESL teacher what the "best school in New York was," he says, he got a $22-an-hour job dumping trash and scrubbing toilets at Columbia in order to take seven credits' worth of classes free per year.
It took over a decade, and it wasn't easy: bone-tired from pulling graveyard shifts then studying all night, he twice thought of quitting. "But I overcame it," he says.
As Filipaj crossed the stage at Columbia's commencement
, the crowd erupted in applause.
"He has this amazing humility," says Columbia Dean Scott Halvorson, "but also this clear drive. It's an extraordinary thing."
"I think I looked a little bit better than I look in my uniform," Filipaj proudly reflected the next day, "because the uniform tells that I clean bathrooms – but the gown tells that I have a college degree!"
Now armed with an Ivy League degree, he's set his sights on an even bigger prize: a master's degree in classics, then a Ph.D., with the goal of one day becoming a professor.
Until then, the humble bachelor who regularly sends money back home to his family has no plans to quit his job as a custodian. "If a job is honest,” he says, "there's no shame in it."
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