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Custodian Details His Unique Path To Earning B.A. At Columbia University

Gac Filipaj Says He'll Pursue A Master's Degree And Hopes He Inspires Others
Gac Filipaj (credit: CBS 2)

Gac Filipaj (credit: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A 52-year-old Columbia University custodian will have his dream come true after graduating with honors.

Gac Filipaj will walk at Columbia’s commencement ceremonies, capping a nearly 20-year journey from his home in Yugoslavia to a B.A. in Classics.

“I’ve spent almost half of my lifetime in United States, coming to work…working 8 hours, working overtime or coming for classes,” Filipaj told CBS 2’s Chris Wragge.

Filipaj’s path is unique to say the least. His full-time job as a custodian on campus allowed him to get his Ivy League education in the Tuition Exemption program.

“The key is he was in class with every other undergraduate at Columbia and competing with them,” said Professor Peter Awn, Dean of the School of General Studies.

It took Filipaj 7 years to learn English and 12 years to graduate.  He did it all while working 8 to 12 hours per day to send money home to his family.

If you ask him what the toughest part of the last two decades has been, he doesn’t hesitate.

“The most difficult thing is ancient Greek — it’s just a killer! Latin is a little bit easier, at least for me,” Filipaj said.

The dean has been in awe of Filipaj’s tenacity for years, and wonders after 20 years if he has seen the last of him in the halls?

“I want to try, if I can, to get [my] master’s,” he said. “I’d rather clean bathrooms 2 or 3 more years and get the master’s than get a lot of more money and get better job and stuff like that.”

Filipaj admitted there have been times where he has wondered if he wouldn’t fit into the graduation ceremony because of his age, but then asked himself “Why not?”

Filipaj was very apprehensive about any type of publicity for his story.  However, he said he felt if someone saw his example, they would possibly decide to seek higher education no matter what age.

The dean told CBS 2’s Wragge if Filipaj does continue to work at Columbia, he would be the school’s only janitor with an Ivy League education working towards a Ph.D.

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