Gac Filipaj: From janitor to Ivy League graduate
(CBS News) It's graduation season, and though every grad has traveled a unique personal path to his or her diploma, few have a story to match Gac Filipaj.
CBS News correspondent Tony Guida reports Filipaj, 52, graduated from Columbia University Sunday. His diploma is a validation of a life-altering choice: books over blood.
Filipaj's country of birth - Yugoslavia - was a killing field in 1992 with civil war, ethnic cleansing. Filipaj could either fight for a cause he did not believe in or flee.
He escaped to New York. He chose it not just as refuge but as renaissance.
"I am not blind. I look in the mirror and see myself. If god has not given me some nice appearance he has given me a head, has given me a heart and I can make myself better," Filipaj said.
Filipaj started at the bottom, cleaning bathrooms. But these were Ivy League bathrooms. He chose a janitor's job at Columbia University because it came with 14 free credit hours a year.
"I do believe that education, a good education, is very important not only for individuals themselves but for society as a whole," Filipaj said.
First Filipaj had to learn English. With his fulltime job it took 7 years. Then he enrolled in Columbia's classics program, studying Greek and Latin by day, scrubbing toilets by night.
"He is a remarkable human being," said Gareth Williams, who supervised Filipaj's thesis on the Roman philosopher Seneca.
The professor saw a man dedicated to knowledge.
"He would ask one question and then he would ask another question and a third question. His intellectual curiosity is very broad," Williams said.
Another 12 years of work-study led to this moment, not just a crowning but also a passage. Filipaj plans to get a Masters, even a PhD. One day he hopes to teach.
"There is a saying that Seneca said: 'While you teach, you learn,'" Filipaj said.
With 19 years of learning behind him, Gac Filipaj, 52, graduated from Columbia University on Sunday, with honors.
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