New York (The Gaslamp Post) – A man who came here as a refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia and has scraped by as a janitor, graduated from Columbia University this morning. Gac Filipaj, 52, of New York, has worked at the school in exchange for his tuition, for over 12 years. This morning, donning a cap and gown, Filipaj graduated with honors, holding a bachelor’s degree in classics.
Peter Awn, dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies and professor of Islamic studies said, “This is a man with great pride, whether he’s doing custodial work or academics. He is immensely humble and grateful, but he’s one individual who makes his own future.”
Filipaj, an ethnic Albanian, came to the United States in 1992, while studying law in Montenegro. When civil war broke out, he was almost drafted by the Yugoslavian army. The Serbians who ran the Yugoslav army considered Albanians their enemy.
Filipaj is now an American citizen.
For years, Filipaj attended morning classes before going to work at the school at around 2:30 pm, everyday. He appreciated the opportunity to earn his education and cheerfully completed his duties of hauling trash, scrubbing toilets, and mopping floors. Younger students would often times appear surprised when they saw Filipaj working through out the school. “They say, ‘Aren’t you…?’” he said smiling.
Filipaj still sends money to his family back home. He lives simply in an apartment in New York, where he reportedly has no cell phone or computer.
His interest is obtaining a better job, but said his goal isn’t monetary. “The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head, not in my pockets,” said Filipaj.