Columbia janitor completes 20-year journey to earn Columbia degree

Gac Filipaj of Belmont jumps for joy over completing his 20-year journey to collect his sheepskin from Columbia University where he works as a janitor.
Photo credit: Michael DiVito/Columbia University

From Columbia custodian to Columbia grad.

For Gac Filipaj of Belmont, it took almost 20 years to get there.

On Sunday, May 13 Filipaj collected his long sought-after degree.

An immigrant from Yugoslavia originally not speaking a word of English, Filipaj received his B.A. in classics. He also cleaned up several department honors from the Ivy League school.

“I am extremely pleased to see the results of my efforts pay off,” said Filipaj, 52.

His story starts in Ulcinj, Yugoslavia in 1992 when the country was torn apart.

Filipaj had taken part-time college courses in Belgrade when he heard about genocide and civil war spreading throughout the country.

“People felt threatened and many escaped,” said Filipaj, who eventually stopped taking courses to do the same. “I came so close and I didn’t finish school, and that fact bothered me all the time.”

He fled to the United States to start a new life, saying goodbye to his family to test the American Dream.

He arrived at his uncle’s home in Belmont and began taking English language courses at Theodore Roosevelt High School, hoping to find work.

Several months passed. Having learned the language, Filipaj wanted a job. A meeting with his English instructor led him to find work as a custodian for Columbia University.

But he wanted to make the school work for him.

His ambition led him to take more English-language courses, this time at the university’s American Language Program.

He eventually excelled through the various language proficiency levels to enroll as an undergrad student at the prestigious Manhattan campus, beginning in 2000.

Pulling double duty as a custodian and student was no easy task, according to Filipaj. He took two courses each semester, then clocked in at night.

“It’s very difficult to be a full-time worker and a full-time student,” said Filipaj. “The lack of time kept me from taking more classes.”

Still, he kept his eyes on the diploma he wanted, memorizing the coursework at home after work.

end result,” said Filipaj.

“I was happy studying and thinking about the end result.”

The process remained that way over a decade.

The hard work paid off, Filipaj is now a college man.

With his longtime goal completed, Filipaj is looking forward to the latter part of the dream.

“Going to graduate school would complete it,” Filipaj said.

For now, like most college graduates, Filipaj will take some well-deserved time off from school.

Reach reporter David Cruz at 718-742-3383 or email

More from Around NYC