Seated next to many of the same kids he spends a third of his day cleaning up after, Columbia University custodian Gac Filipaj finally realized an accomplishment 12 years in the making: A bachelor's degree in classics.
A "heavy cleaner" at Columbia's Lerner Hall for the past 20 years, Filipaj made the most of the school's free education for employees, taking classes in the mornings before the start of his shift. Often finishing his work after 11 PM, the unfazed 52-year-old would immediately hit the books.
But hard work and dedication to his studies were nothing new to the man from the small Montenegrin village of Donja Klezna who commuted for years by train to his law school in Belgrade. He never did get to finish, having been forced to flee in 1992 on the eve of being drafted by the Serb-led Yugoslav army, notorious for its hate of ethnic Albanians such as himself.
Upon arrival in the US "I asked people, which are the best schools in New York?" he recalled. Being directed to Columbia, "I went there to see if I could get a job."
Filipaj still sends a portion of his $22/hour paycheck to his family back home. He doesn't own a computer or a cellphone, and believes "richness of the heart and head" eclipse the richness in one's pockets.
"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 told the Daily News last week.
Speaking with The Associated Press after receiving his graduation certificate, Filipaj reiterated his desire to continue with his studies at Columbia — obtaining a master's or a Ph.D in Roman and Greek classics — and land a job as supervisor of custodians.
After taking a few more questions, the humble Lion excused himself, and resumed his custodial duties.
[Gothamist, photo via AP]