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Middle-Aged Janitor Completes Journey, Graduates From Columbia With Honors

Gac Filipaj (Credit: CBS 2)

Gac Filipaj (Credit: CBS 2)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - It was a special commencement day for one Columbia University graduate on Sunday morning.

While cleaning the school’s buildings, a 52-year-0ld janitor has been working towards his own Ivy League degree.

“For Columbia, this is one of the great, great stories,” Columbia Professor Peter Awn told CBS 2’s Chris Wragge.

Gac Filipaj walked at Columbia’s commencement ceremony this morning, capping a nearly 20-year journey from his home in Yugoslavia to a B.A. in Classics.

Oh, and he graduated with honors.

“I’ve spent almost half my life in the United States coming to work or coming for class,” Filipaj said.

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

“The key is that he was in class with every other undergrad at Columbia and competing with them,” Awn said with pride.

It took Filipaj seven years to learn English and 12 years to graduate, and he’s not shy about admitting what the toughest part of the last two decades has been.

“The most difficult thing is Ancient Greek,” the graduate said. “It’s a killer! Latin is easier, at least for me.”

Awn, the dean of the School of General Studies, has been in awe of Filipaj’s tenacity for years, and wonders whether after two decades he’s seen the last of the middle-aged man in the halls.

But not so fast — Filipaj has aspirations of getting his Masters Degree.

“I’d rather clean bathrooms for two to three more years and get my Masters, and then make more money and get a better job,” Filipaj reasoned. “To be honest, sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong because of my age. But then I say, ‘Why not?'”

Graduation ceremonies at Columbia kicked off at 9 a.m. this morning.

How inspirational is Gac Filipaj’s story? Offer your thoughts and comments on his path to success below…