Custodian cleans up*for classics degree*at Columbia* - NY Daily News
IT TOOK ALMOST 20 years, but this weekend a Columbia University custodian will put down his broom and dustpan just long enough to collect his sheepskin.
Gac Filipaj, 52, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, toiled day and night to earn a bachelor’s degree in classics — with honors, no less.
And even though he spent nearly two decades in school — taking one or two classes a semester — he’s not finished with higher education.
“Only half my dream came true,” Filipaj said. “Today, one ought to have a master’s or a Ph.D.”
Filipaj said he hopes to go to grad school now.
“He better!” said Phil Mendoza, the assistant dean of students. “He just loves what he’s learning.”
Leaving behind his parents and siblings in his war-torn homeland, Filipaj fled to the U.S. in 1992, speaking barely a word of English.
A language tutor suggested he try to get a job at Columbia so he could take tuition-free courses, and he scored a cleaning gig.
He spent several years taking English proficiency classes, then enrolled in the School of General Studies in 2000.
He had to complete the Ivy League school’s rigorous core curriculum, then decided on classics — not a major known for easy As.
The bachelor would take classes in the morning, work from 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., and then trek home to the Bronx to study.
“I had some very difficult moments,” he said. “Some days, I was so tired.”
His professors all knew what his day job was, but he would chuckle at the sometimes surprised faces of classmates who ran into him while he was pushing a broom.
He said he didn’t pursue other jobs because he didn’t want to give up his tuition benefit until he finally had a diploma.
On Sunday, he’ll get it at the school’s graduation. Three days later, he’ll join hundreds of other students at the university-wide commencement.
He took two vacation days for the festivities. Then, he said, it’s back to work.
“I think I’m going to stay at Columbia. If I can get a job better than cleaning, good. If not, there is nothing shameful about that work.”
He was a bit sheepish that Columbia has made a fuss about his graduation, but thought it might inspire someone like him.
“If my story and the fact at this age I am graduating helps people to think about getting an education, it’s for a good cause,” he said. firstname.lastname@example.org
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