Janitor Earns Columbia University Degree After 12 Years Of Study

Gac Filipaj janitor Colombia University degreeHe's an immigrant who became a janitor, and on Sunday, he'll also be an Ivy League graduate, with a degree in classics from Columbia University.

It's a classic American success story, but not the kind you read much in these recessionary times. Gac Filipaj, 52, came to the U.S. from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1992 barely speaking a word of English. On the advice of his first English tutor in New York, he began working as a janitor at Columbia University so that he could take advantage of the school's tuition-exemption benefit program that allows employees to enroll in classes for free. Lucky for him, because according to Collegedata.com, tuition and fees at Columbia cost $45,290.

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Filipaj, after entering Columbia's School of General Studies in 2000, chose to major in classics. And this spring he completed enough credits to graduate, often attending classes in the morning and working until 11 p.m. at night. "The most difficult thing is ancient Greek -- it's just a killer! Latin is a little bit easier, at least for me," Filipaj told CBS New York. (Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Columbia's School of General Studies is open-enrollment. It is not.)

And after getting such a fancy degree, he remains focused on education.

"I want to try, if I can, to get [my] master's," he told CBS New York. "I'd rather clean bathrooms two or three more years and get the master's than get a lot of more money and get better job and stuff like that."

The accomplishment has not gone unnoticed by the deans of Columbia.

"The key is he was in class with every other undergraduate at Columbia and competing with them," Professor Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies, told the TV station.

Filipaj told New York's Daily News that he grew accustomed to seeing the surprised faces of his classmates as they came across him sweeping floors at Columbia.

He says that he has sent much of the money that he has earned back to his family in the former Yugoslavia.

The university does not release salary information for its maintenance staff. Some janitors in New York City public schools famously earned big salaries, due to overtime. But many in this occupation do not. In fact, workers at Diversified Maintenance Services in Minnesota last week announced that they're planning a lawsuit against their employer for allegedly failing to pay overtime wages.





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Filed under: Success Stories, College
Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

Associate Editor

Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.

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Richard Buttigieg Jr

Nice story but the title makes it sound like it is an unlikely surprise that a janitor
is capable and I repeat capable (not able ) of getting a college degree.
Let me tell you that there are homeless peaple out there with extraordinary
intelligence however due to tough circumstances do not end up getting degrees.
Not everyone has rich parents Mr.Fastenberg!

May 11 2012 at 9:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bagthepi

That's awesome! He is testimony to what is right in America. Congratulations!

May 10 2012 at 1:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
praiseintheearth

Congratulations, Gac!! You are one awesome human being! God bless you!

May 10 2012 at 5:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eyeforeye42

Makes me sad to think about the free education given in public schools when kids drop out with the thoughts they will do better being street wise and ignorant while we have 3rd world country immigrants gladly stepping up for an education that makes the sky the limit!

May 10 2012 at 4:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
davidj1803

To Dude: That is nothing unusual, all major colleges and universities have basically the same thing--employees can get a free education. This has been in effect for over 60 years at least!!

May 10 2012 at 3:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Joan

A lesson learned. That hard work, dedication, and the desire to make something of oneself should be the goal of every young person. There is more to life than hanging around malls and getting into trouble. Best wishes to this fine gentleman, and congratulations to him!

May 10 2012 at 1:35 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
DeVoneWorks

Congratulations Mr. Filipaj.

May 10 2012 at 1:03 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Dude

Did I read that right? If you work for the college you can attend classes for free?

Attention all parents! Your high school age kids need to learn janitorial skills so they can work their way through college and not graduate with $50K to $100K in student loans hanging over their heads.

May 10 2012 at 12:07 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dude's comment
alycemd

Most Colleges and Universities do this, some even for employees' children. I know a Nurse who accepted a lower paying job at a University Hospital so his kids could go there for free.

May 10 2012 at 4:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jgsonline

WOW! Congratulations and all best wishes to you, Mr. Filipaj! You are an inspiration!

May 09 2012 at 11:36 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
fthoma

I suppose with a degree in the Classics he went back to work as a janitor, having no other skill other than perhaps teaching classics students.

May 09 2012 at 11:32 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fthoma's comment
rhs686

No, he went back to work and will be going for his Masters.
What have you done.?

May 09 2012 at 11:59 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rhs686's comment
alycemd

I knew there would be one like fthoma on here if we waited long enough! I'll bet the answer to your question will be "Nothing"!

May 10 2012 at 4:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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