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Wednesday, 16 May 2012






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What we can learn from the Columbia University janitor?

Gac Filipaj, 52 year old, has been employed at the Columbia University as a janitor since he came over to America from the then war torn Yugoslavia.

His finest hour came recently when he became one of the gowned graduates to walk out of the prestigious Ivy League University - despite his status as the cleaning man at the university.

Although as an employee of the Columbia University, he didn't have to pay for the classes he took, he had to work hard to earn the degree in classics. Filipaj said that his favourite subject was Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman. "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 in a statement.

Filipaj, a native Albanian, learnt English before he was accepted at Columbia. For years, he studied late into the night at his apartment, after a 2.30-11 p.m. shift as a 'heavy cleaner' which was his job description. On days he had exams, he would study staying up all night and go back to work after sitting for his paper.

Gac Filipaj at the graduation ceremony

Filipaj has a story that not just warms our hearts but also permits courage to bloom in our hearts. He is the classic personification of the impossible dream. You would not expect a janitor to graduate - or to aspire for a take on Seneca. Yet there are those among us who, if given the right opportunity, would bloom a thousand flowers where there is none.

Clear perspective on life

Filipaj had the best mix - courage, commitment, a steely determination to see it through and a clear perspective on life. He completed the degree because he loved it - not so much to make money. Therein lies the qualities that set his apart. He took the time to study, he did not give up on a dream he did not need but was sure of achieving.

In becoming an Ivy League graduate, Filipaj has not lost his head - a good portion of his US $ 22-an-hour janitor's pay is still sent back home to his brother, sister-in-law and two kids who live in Montenegro.

He has no computer, but says he bought one for the family, who makes a living by selling dairy products back home. He does not waste money on a cell phone either. His only regret was not having his father around to see his achievement. But the greatest revelation came when Filipaj did not show any regret or bitterness about his tough life. He could have moaned and complained like so many of our own young people do about their lot in life. Instead of complaining, Filipaj cheerfully described how younger students would be surprised to see their classmate clean up after them.

Lessons in humanity

Filipaj hopes to eventually get a master's degree, maybe even a Ph.D., in Roman and Greek classics. He says he hopes - someday- to become a teacher and translate his favourite classics into Albanian. He says he is not interested in studying merely to make more money.

"The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head, not in my pockets," he says.

Lessons for us all. For those of us who grumble with our lot in life - for others who never have enough. And also for those who prefer their pockets over their hearts. Filipaj teaches us all important lessons in humanity. No one owes us any favours. If we succeed, it is only because we have worked hard and deserve that level of success.

He also teaches us to be good at what we do, never to give up on a dream and to live life well, whatever that life is. If every young Sri Lankan man and woman can emulate the kind of example Filipaj set, we would not have unrest in the universities. These are the kind of stories the universities must pick up and share with their young students who could be encouraged and empowered by stories like this.

There are hundreds of men and women, courageous, determined and strong willed who have achieved the impossible dream. Letís follow them - learn from them and share their secret.



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