New York: For years, Gac Filipaj mopped floors, cleaned toilets and took out trash at Columbia University.
A refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia, he eked out a living working for the Ivy League school. But Sunday was payback time: The 52-year-old janitor donned a cap and gown to graduate with a bachelor's degree in classics.
As a Columbia employee, he didn't have to pay for the classes he took. His favourite subject was the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca, the janitor said during a break from his work at Lerner Hall, the student union building he cleans.
"I love Seneca's letters because they're written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family — not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honourable life," he said.
His graduation with honours capped a dozen years of studies, including readings in ancient Latin and Greek.
"This is a man with great pride, whether he's doing custodial work or academics," said Peter Awn, dean of Columbia's School of General Studies and professor of Islamic studies.
"He is immensely humble and grateful, but he's one individual who makes his own future."
Filipaj was accepted at Columbia after first learning English; his mother tongue is Albanian.
For Filipaj, the degree comes after years of studying late into the night in his Bronx apartment, where he'd open his books after a 2.30-11pm shift as a "heavy cleaner" — his job title.