Facing war in his homeland, Gac Filipaj traveled to America in search of a better life and a job so he could send money back home to relatives.
Now, 20 years after leaving the former Yugoslavia for America without speaking a word of English, Filipaj has earned a B.A. in Classics -- with department honors -- from Columbia University's School of General Studies, where he has worked as a janitor for the past 19 years, the New York Daily News reports.
On Sunday, the 52-year-old will join hundreds of other undergraduate students at commencement to receive his degree and then take a break for two days. After that, he said operations will return to normal as he goes back to work as a janitor.
"I think I'm going to stay at Columbia," Filipaj told the Daily News. "If I can get a job better than cleaning, good. If not, there is nothing shameful about that work."
In a press release issued by Columbia University, Filipaj said he took a job as a janitor at the University in order to take English language classes, and then enrolled in the general studies program.
"First, for six years, I worked in the dormitories as a heavy cleaner, and then, when the student union Lerner Hall opened, I began working there in 2000," Filipaj said. "As a student, I was working on English-language courses and eventually my English proficiency was at a high enough level to be eligible to begin taking classes part-time through the School of Continuing Education and then the School of General Studies."
Filipaj said his grueling schedule -- classes in the morning, then work until 11 p.m. -- was too much to bear at times.
"I had some very difficult moments," he told the Daily News. "Some days, I was so tired."
Filipaj said he plans to further his education and hopes to take courses in classics, foreign languages or philosophy.
"I would say that I have fulfilled half of my dream—going to graduate school would complete it," Filipaj said in the Columbia press release.
Columbia, a member of the Ivy League, is one of the nation's elite schools and accepts only 10 percent of applicants. Columbia support staff, however, have their tuition exempted, according to Columbia human resources website.
The Tuition Exemption Benefit Program pays tuition costs for undergraduate and graduate courses at Columbia University, Barnard College and Teachers College -- all without having to solve equations late at night like Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting.
According to Collegedata.com, Columbia's total cost of attendance was $59,117 in 2012, which includes room and board. Tuition and fees cost $45,290. Of all undergrads, the site reports that 51.5 percent of undergraduates were found to have financial need and were eligible for an average award of $40.259.