Custodian To Graduate from Columbia University After 19 Years

PHOTO: Gac Filipaj, 52, a custodian at Columbia University, is graduating with honors and a degree in classics.
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A Yugoslavian-born custodian at New York's Columbia University will be trading in his uniform for a cap and gown this weekend when he graduates with honors after working on his degree for 12 years.

Gac Filipaj, 52, will graduate with a bachelor's degree in classics with honors from Columbia's School of General Studies.

"I'm proud and I'm extremely happy," Filipaj told ABC News.

It's been a long road for Filipaj who fled to the United States from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1992, leaving behind his parents and siblings on a family farm in Montenegro.

Filipaj has always been a dedicated student. When he was living in Montenegro and working on his family's farm, he attended the Law College in Belgrade as a part-time student.

"As a part-time student, I only had to be present for the exams. So I would travel overnight by train, for eight hours, to take exams and then return to help my family on our farm," he said in a statement. "Eventually I began rooming with a friend near campus, but the fighting in Yugoslavia prevented me from finishing my degree."

He arrived in New York speaking virtually no English and settled in Bronx where he started taking English classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School.

Filipaj asked a friend what the best school in New York was and his friend pointed him to Columbia University, one of the country's top Ivy League schools.

He took a job there as a custodian for six years while he learned to speak English. When he was proficient enough, he began taking classes part-time.

The dedicated student and worker would go to class in the morning and then do his custodian work from afternoon until night before heading home to the Bronx to study.

The university provides tuition exemption for employees for a number of courses per semester. The school does not have special classes for employees and instead mainstreams them into classes with all of the other students and the same tough requirements.

"They're in class with all of the other highly talented undergraduates," Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies, told ABCNews.com. "Students with untraditional backgrounds add significantly to intellectual discourse."

Awn has been a longtime admirer of Filipaj's work ethic and positive attitude.

"You meet him and even when he's working, you get a big smile and you can just see this sense of pride in what he's doing here at Columbia," Awn said. "He's one of those people that believe that if you work hard at anything, be that his custodial responsibilities or his academic responsibilities, you can create that sense of accomplishment and value."

One or two classes a semester and 19 years later, his hard work has paid off.

"I am extremely pleased and happy to see the results of my efforts pay off after all of this time. I have truly enjoyed my professors, especially Professor Gareth Williams, and being in classes with young people who are extremely mature in their approach to their coursework," Filipaj said in a statement.

Filipaj told ABC News that his only regret is that his father died three weeks ago and did not know how Filipaj had been working on his education. He wished he could have told his father "because he thought that I'm not that smart," he said.

He still sends most of his salary to his family in Montenegro.

In addition to being smart, he is ambitious and intends to earn a master's degree or PhD in classics, languages or philosophy.

"I would say that I have fulfilled half of my dream—going to graduate school would complete it," Filipaj said. Awn is confident that Filipaj will continue his education.

"I'm sure I'm going to see him in a classroom, at some point, on the other side of the desk," he said with a laugh.

According to Columbia, Filipaj wants to take a semester off to focus on his job and then he plans to start studying again, probably at Columbia where he would get the tuition exemption.

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