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.