Ivy League Janitor: 'I'm Still Wearing The Gown'

May 17, 2012
Originally published on May 17, 2012 4:58 pm

Gac Filipaj is thrilled that he graduated this week from Columbia University.

"I'm still wearing the gown. I'm going to wear it for awhile," he told Tell Me More host Michel Martin just after Columbia's commencement ceremony. "And I look pretty well in that, to tell you the truth."

Why is it such a big deal? It's not just that he's graduating with honors at age 52, or that the Albanian refugee was forced to flee civil war in the 1990s. It's because for nearly 20 years, Filipaj has been working as a janitor at the Ivy League school, while taking free classes to learn English and earn a bachelor's degree in classics.

"My main concern was work, school, school, work," says Filipaj. "I can tell you this for sure that I have not taken one midterm or one final, and to be very well-rested before I took it."

Once he was accepted at Columbia's School of General Studies, Filipaj took classes in the morning, worked as a janitor well into the night, and only then did he have the chance to crack open a book.

"Couple of times when the alarm clock rang, and I was so tired, I thought, 'You know what? Let me stay, and sleep, and rest, and forget this school. I'm going to drop everything,' " he says.

But somehow, he would conjure up the strength to get up, he says, and as soon as he was on his feet, he would be OK.

Filipaj plans to stay at his job and go for a master's degree focusing on Roman philosophy.

"I followed my heart," he says. "I did not follow a practical reason to study and to major in something which would bring me money."

In the short term, he plans to celebrate by going out for drinks with an old friend. After that, he might have a couple of more drinks, "but make sure that I do not overdo it," says Filipaj, "and tomorrow I'll go to work."

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