Born in the former Yugoslavia, Gac Filipaj, 52, began his academic career with the intention of studying Russian and becoming a linguist. However, after finding that it would be easier to obtain a position as lawyer, he attended classes part-time at the Law College in Belgrade, commuting eight hours by train overnight to take exams before returning back to his family’s farm in Montenegro.
In 1982, he began fifteen months of compulsory military service, after which he moved closer to the Law College to focus on his studies, but he was unable to finish his degree due to the violent upheavals and persistent turmoil in the Balkans. And while he managed odd jobs and learned to speak Serbo-Croatian, Filipaj, an ethnic Albanian, fled his homeland in 1992 during the last year of his studies.
He arrived in the United States knowing no English, settled in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx with his uncle, and worked as a busboy. While taking English classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School, he asked a friend what the best university in New York City was, and set his sights on getting a job at Columbia.
After obtaining a position as a heavy cleaner in the dorms in 1993, Filipaj used his benefits as a University employee to begin taking classes throughout the University’s American Language Program while performing his custodial duties full-time.
“Eventually my English proficiency was at a high enough level to be eligible to begin taking classes part-time,” Filipaj said. He began in the School of Continuing Education, and after two semesters applied and was admitted to General Studies.
Filipaj, a classic major who graduated with departmental honors, became interested in the great works of the Roman philosopher Seneca, whose letters he admires “because they’re written in the spirit in which [he] was educated in [his] family—not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honorable life.”
Filipaj stays true to Seneca’s stoic statement, as demonstrated by sending a portion of each paycheck to his family in Montenegro and buying them a computer while forgoing having one of his own.
Dissatisfied with having not completed college in Belgrade, Filipaj committed himself to completing his degree at Columbia. It was not uncommon for him to work all afternoon and evening until 11 p.m., return home to pull all-nighters studying or writing papers, and then show up to class the next morning before heading to work again the next afternoon.
Now that he’s completed his undergraduate degree, Filipaj is unsure of what the future holds, though he’s currently considering his options, one of which he hopes may be a supervisory position in the Facilities Management department of Columbia.
However, he may not be done with Seneca just yet—Filipaj’s ambition is leading him to consider graduate programs, where he would like to pursue a master’s degree (and eventually perhaps a PhD) in Roman and Greek Classics.
“I would say that I have fulfilled half of my dream—going to graduate school would complete it,” Filipaj said.
He has expressed interested in becoming a teacher and translating his favorite classical texts into his native Albanian.