Lately, I feel like a tornado strapped into a rollercoaster. I have had so much going on in every aspect of my life that it feels as though I haven’t even had a moment to pause and catch my breath for weeks.
However, while I do occasionally catch myself grumbling about my insane schedule (usually when I’m sitting down to eat my first real meal of the day at 10 p.m.), each and every thing that has kept me whirling through life from morning until night is worth it to me. Every current “role” in my life is important, and I wouldn’t give a single one up for the world. Friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, employee, maid of honor, horseback rider, coach—every role (no matter how demanding) contributes to my happiness, satisfaction, and self-worth.
That said, no matter what your current “roles” may be or how satisfied (or dissatisfied) you are with them, I think it helps to regularly come across something or someone that can both humble and inspire you.
For me, this week’s source of humility and inspiration is a “someone.” An incredibly brave, determined, hardworking, and awe-inspiring someone.
Gac Filipaj, 52, recently donned his graduation gown and cap and accepted his bachelor’s degree in Classics with honors from the Ivy-League Columbia University. While an honors degree from the United States' fourth-ranked university is an impressive achievement in itself, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Filipaj’s accomplishments.
After escaping war-torn Yugoslavia in 1992, Filipaj ended up in New York. Not only did he have to deal with being away from family and friends in a new country, he also had to overcome the challenge of learning to speak English. However, Filipaj had always been a dedicated student. He was determined to make a life for himself in the U.S. and to get to a point where he could pursue his educational dreams and provide for his family at the same time.
Filipaj enrolled in English classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School and also sought out and secured a job as a custodian at Columbia University. For the next six years, he worked hard at both. And, after mastering the English language, he took advantage of the university’s policy of providing free tuition to employees. Columbia offers the chance for its employees to take a few courses per semester at no charge, but no other special advantages are provided. Employees must attend the same classes as the talented undergraduate students who successfully navigated the steep entrance requirements. They are also graded by the same lofty standards. In other words, employees have to hold their own and compete against some of the country’s most brilliant students.
Filipaj didn’t back down from the challenge. He made the most of his opportunity for a free higher education. He attended classes while still managing his custodial duties, working eight to 12 hours per day (and sending the majority of his salary home to his family in Yugoslavia).
Today, 19 years after immigrating to the U.S. and 12 years after starting classes at Columbia, Filipaj says that he has fulfilled half of his dream by gaining a bachelor’s degree. The other half will be complete after he earns a master’s degree or PhD in philosophy, Classics, or languages. He intends to start pursuing this after taking a month “break” to concentrate on his custodial job.
The Dean of the School of General Studies, Peter Awn, has gone on the record, saying, “I’m sure I’m going to see him in a classroom, at some point, on the other side of the desk.”
If a man who has gone from speaking virtually no English to graduating from one of the country’s top universities (through sheer determination, incredible work ethic, and a steadfast commitment to achieving his dreams) isn’t highly inspirational, then I don’t know what is. Therefore, next time I find myself arriving home late after a long day—exhausted and running on an empty stomach—rather than grumbling, I will be thinking of Filipaj and gleaning inspiration from his incredible accomplishments.