Cum Laude! Custodian Takes Classics Degree After 20 Years

Never underestimate the power of persistence. After almost 20 years, 52-year-old Gac Filipaj, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, is receiving his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and in a subject that is not the easiest, Classics.

The New York Daily News says Filipaj came to the US in 1992, leaving behind his parents and siblings. He barely spoke any English and a language tutor suggested he get a job at Columbia, so he could take tuition-free courses. After years of taking English-proficiency classes, Filipaj enrolled in Columbia’s School of General Studies in 2000.

Taking classes in the morning as he worked from 2:30 to 11:00 pm, Filipaj first completed Columbia’s core curriculum, then the requirements for a Classics degree. According to the website for Columbia’s Classics department, that means he had to take numerous courses in ancient Greek and Latin languages, literature and history as well as write a senior thesis.

Filipaj took only one or two classes a semester, so it did take him some years to finish his degree. But he now has and, this Sunday, May 13, he will attend graduation ceremonies at Columbia. As he told the New York Daily News:

“I had some very difficult moments,” he said. “Some days, I was so tired.”

His professors all knew what his day job was, but he would chuckle at the sometimes surprised faces of classmates who ran into him while he was pushing a broom.

He said he didn’t pursue other jobs because he didn’t want to give up his tuition benefit until he finally had a diploma.

Filipaj plans to take two vacation days to celebrate and then will be back to work. He is not in a hurry to get another job, saying that “there is nothing shameful about that work” of being a custodian (which Filipaj, with his Classics training, would know comes from the Latin word custos, “guard”). He does want to keep up his studies and get a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. and seems bemused that so much is being made of his accomplishment. As he commented,

“If my story and the fact at this age I am graduating helps people to think about getting an education, it’s for a good cause.”

On a sobering note, job opportunities teaching Latin and ancient Greek, to elementary and secondary students and at the university level, are not exactly in abundant supply. (Classics is one of those “useless college majors,” some would say.) Filipaj’s determination to stick with his studies is truly noteworthy and a reminder that, at a time when so much of the discussion about college is on choosing to major in what will get you the best-paying job (or a job at all), there is a huge value in studying what you want and what you love.

Years ago, I decided to major in Classics because I really liked ancient Greek and Latin. I knew then that I was lucky to be able to study what I wanted. Through a lot of obstacles — most of all the challenges of raising a severely autistic son, who was diagnosed just as I was starting my first tenure-track job in Classics — I’ve managed to stick to (cling to, it has often felt like!) the study and teaching of ancient Greek and Latin. Reading a passage of Homer’s Odyssey or of a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus has often helped me collect myself and gain some perspective after a particularly difficult day for Charlie.

Many congratulations to Gac Filipaj!

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Riccardo P.
5 years ago

obviously this man understands quite well what's really important in life, congratulations on the degree!

Virginia B.
Virginia B5 years ago

As a language teacher, I'd like to say that studying the classics immeasurably enriches one's knowledge of one's own language, if one is a speaker of any European language, including Eastern European ones like Serbian or Croatian. Actually it was probably easier for him to learn Latin and Greek, because he probably had much better training in the grammar of his native language than our students could dream of getting here!
The deliberate "dumbing down" of the teaching of English grammar in our schools, makes it very difficult for us teachers to effectively teach other foreign languages. I bet Prof. Chew can attest to that!

Jen Matheson
Past Member 5 years ago

Wow, what an incredible story! Imagine getting a Classics degree when English isn't even your first language. He must've worked beyond harder than any "normal" sudendt would.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

Kudos to Filipaj!

paul c.
paul c5 years ago

This story just makes me happy! We should all follow Mr. Filipaj's example and live our dreams. I recall graduating from college (long ago!) with one of the ladies who worked in our cafeteria. Our paths had crossed in a class or two (in addition to working together in the cafeteria), and I was so proud of her! The whole class applauded as she received her diploma.

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B5 years ago

Inspiring. I'm so pleased for him.

Keevin Shultz
Keevin Shultz5 years ago

You can bet your sweet bippy the 1% doesn't like this but they, of course, will tell the 99%, "See, even a janitor can go to college, what a great country!"

Jeni Greenwood
Jennifer G5 years ago

Such a great article! Congrats to Gac Filipaj for achieving his dream, and for keeping classics alive in a world where it is often forgotten - it is truly a rich and rewarding major!
As a fellow Classics major, this story rocks! ;-)

Johnice R.
Johnice R5 years ago

Many adults enjoy an education as a benefit of working for a College or University in menial or support positions. There are several ways to earn a degree, minorities and immigrants are often forced to be more creative in achieving their degrees.

Dave C.
David C5 years ago

wonderful story, inspiring....