Student by day, custodian by night, Gac Filipaj earns Classics degree with honors

By Kristen Mascia
June 02, 2012 11:55 AM
Spencer Heyfron

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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