Columbia University janitor graduates with degree in Classics

The Takeaway

In the early 1990s when Yugoslavia was being torn apart by civil war, Gac Filipaj, a part-time law student, decided to get out.

He fled to New York City and became a custodian at Columbia University, because it was the best higher-education institution around. After learning some English, Filipaj began taking classes before his 8-hour janitorial shifts in the afternoon.

This real-life "Good Will Hunting" story has a happy ending too: After 12 years as a student and a janitor, Filipaj graduated this year at the top of his class with a degree in Classics. That's 124 credit hours.

"I asked one of my English teachers in a high school where I first started taking English, which one is the best school in New York. Best university. He told me that is Columbia, and I told him that I would like to go and work there and" take classes," Filipaj said.

Because he worked there, he was able to take English classes at the school and eventually enroll in college courses as well. It was slow, but it paid off.

Over time, he had to adjust his schedule at accommodate the classes he needed to take. Sometime he took classes in the morning before heading to work in the afternoon. Other times he'd take a class in the middle of his shift and then stay late at work to make up the hour that he missed.

But for the most part, he attended classes in the morning and worked the second shift, 4 p.m. to midnight, as a janitor — in some of the classrooms he'd just sat in.

"And then I would come home, after midnight, and I would start to study," Filipaj said.

With a classics degree, Filipaj said his goal wasn't necessarily to find a better job, though that's certainly a nice benefit, but to make more of himself. He says he wanted to "learn something new" and satisfy his love for languages.

"Latin is an interesting language and their culture, Greco-Roman culture, is very interesting," he said.  "But, of course, who wouldn't get something better after that person invests so much work to get a degree and to make himself or herself better."

Now that he's made it, he's still looking for that full-time job. And he's still trying to comprehend what exactly it is that he did.

"I still cannot evaluate quite clearly the entire finalization of my work," he said. "I enjoy this moment little-by-little, and step-by-step. (The same way) I started. Passing one class, gaining credits."

Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because he just likes school, Filipaj is talking about going back to school to get a master's degree.

"I got used to work and read and study," he said.

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