Columbia janitor graduates with honors

Columbia University janitor Gac Filipaj is congratulated by his boss, Donald Schlosser, assistant vice president of facility operations, at graduation ceremonies. Filipaj, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, earned a bachelor's degree in classics. (Jason DeCrow, Associated Press / May 13, 2012)

NEW YORK— For years, Gac Filipaj mopped floors, cleaned toilets and took out the trash at Columbia University.

A refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia, he eked out a living at the Ivy League school. But Sunday was payback time: The 52-year-old janitor donned a cap and gown to graduate with a bachelor's degree in classics.

As a Columbia employee, his classes were free. His favorite subject was the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca, he said during a break from his work at Lerner Hall, the student union building he cleans.

"I love Seneca's letters because they're written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family: not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honorable life," he said.

His graduation with honors capped a dozen years of study, including readings in ancient Latin and Greek.

"This is a man with great pride, whether he's doing custodial work or academics," said Peter Awn, dean of Columbia's School of General Studies and professor of Islamic studies. "He is immensely humble and grateful, but he's one individual who makes his own future."

Filipaj, now an American citizen, was accepted at Columbia after learning English. His mother tongue is Albanian.

An ethnic Albanian and Roman Catholic, he fled Montenegro in 1992 as a brutal civil war loomed. He was about to be drafted into the Yugoslav army led by Serbs, many of whom considered Albanians their enemy. He had nearly finished law school in Belgrade.

He earned the Columbia degree after years of studying late into the night in his Bronx apartment, where he would open his books after a 2:30-to-11 p.m. shift as a "heavy cleaner," his job title. Before exam time or to finish a paper, he would pull all-nighters.

On Sunday morning in the sun-drenched grassy quad of Columbia's Manhattan campus, Filipaj flashed a huge smile and a thumbs-up as he walked off the stage after shaking hands with Columbia President Lee Bollinger.

Now, his ambition is to get a master's degree, maybe even a doctorate, in Roman and Greek classics. He hopes to become a teacher, while translating his favorite classics into Albanian.

For now, he's trying to get "a better job," maybe as supervisor of custodians or something similar, at Columbia if possible.

But he's not interested in furthering his studies to make more money.

"The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head," Filipaj said. "Not in my pockets."

Soon afterward, the feisty, 5-foot-4 janitor picked up a broom and dustpan and returned to work.

SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, Sunday, May 14, 2012/