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Ivy League school janitor graduates with honors (ap.org)
166 points by jamesjyu on May 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

Columbia has traditionally been quite liberal with their tuition benefits for employees. Also extending to spouses and children. There have been quite a few similar stories over the years of "blue collar" employees in environmental services, security and the like getting their degrees. I'm proud of this guys achievment. Good for him.

Graduation is always lively around Columbia. Im just a bit peeved that Obama is giving the commencement for Barnard on Monday and there will be no parking on Amsterdam Ave. from 110th to 125th. Oy.

(I am a Columbia employee.)

As a car owner who lives in New York, it disturbs me how much of my celebration of events is hampered or enhanced by the impact on parking.

"Ascension Day? Anyone know what that is? All I know is I'm excited because there's no alternate side!"

This is very much a nontrivial achievement. I took 2 years of Latin and I remember the classics majors telling me 3rd year Latin and Ancient Greek could be seriously painful unless you were seriously devoted. Enough to dissuade me from going further

> As a Columbia employee, he didn't have to pay for the classes he took.

This sounds like a pretty good deal.

Do FTE's bypass admissions? Combined w/ free tuition, that sounds like a better deal than student loans, esp if the position allows studying on the job (e.g., security). Might lengthen your stay, but you graduate debt free.

tuition reimbursement is contingent on acceptance to a program. I do not believe you can take classes without being enrolled in "A" program. Admissions through School of Continuing Education (aka, GS) is one way to get into a program. Moreover, Columbia has recently cut back its employee benefits significantly. Starting this fall, no employee can expect to receive more than 3 classes per calendar year. This is in contrast to the previous policy, which allowed an employee to take as many classes as s/he wishes, as long as it does not interfere with one's job responsibilities.

The School of General Studies is entirely separate from the School of Continuing Education.

GS awards bachelor degrees (mostly BAs, some BSs) and a post-baccalaureate certification in premedical sciences. It has rigorous admissions requirements including test scores and transcripts. It is not open enrollment, and you must be working toward a degree (or the postbac premed certificate).

The School of Continuing Education doesn't award undergraduate degrees, and general classes are closer to open enrollment. SCE does have some professional masters degrees, like actuarial science, that I believe do require admissions.

My understanding is that Gac has been at Columbia for 20 years. The first ~7 were taking English classes through the School of Continuing Education. After that he was admitted to GS to pursue a bachelor's degree. However that wasn't automatic for him, or anyone.

I was thinking the same thing. I wonder how many other universities offer such programs.

They typically limit the number of hours you may take per semester. The most I've seen is 6 hours (about 2 classes) per semester.

NYU does this as well, either 50% or 100% tuition remission depending on the employee for up to 9 credits per semester. It also covers 50% of course registration fees.

When I worked for the University of Chicago, they offered to pay 50% of tuition as well. But 50% of tuition for full time enrollment was more than my salary there :)

At 22usd/hour for a janitor? Yeah.

Eh - it's New York. That may not go very far.

It does go far, literally. He sends it back to the old country.

Speaking from experience:

it doesn't.

At some schools it's free for employees but if you fail the class you need to pay, not sure if that's the case here or not.

I'm a Columbia student - I'm not in GS, but a large number of my friends are, so I'd like mention two things:

First, Columbia's School of General Studies has an unusual (and oft-misunderstood) history.

Contrary to popular belief, it did not originate with the GI bill, though that is when the school took its most recent name. It was once (partly) an extension school; the continuing education program has since been separated, so GS students are attending a undergraduate college working towards a bachelor's degree. GS is the only undergraduate college at Columbia that allows students to study part-time, because GS students are considered to be those with 'nontraditional' backgrounds. Officially, this means anybody who's taken more than a year off since completing high school (or who received a GED), so eligibility for GS and Columbia College (the largest undergraduate college) are mutually exclusive. Other than that, though, the requirements are nearly identical - GS students have a slightly more flexible version of the Core, though even that is being brought more in line with the Columbia College requirements[1]. They take the same classes and choose majors in the same departments, so the only difference between the degrees is that the GS degrees are not printed in Latin (which was actually a debate a few years back!)[2]

In theory, GS students are students who would be merged into the regular arts & science colleges at any other university, but the fact that we have a college dedicated to reaching out to these students and providing them with administrative support means that we end up with students from a very wide range of backgrounds. In GS, the typical icebreaker is 'What's your story?', because almost everyone has a story of how they ended up at GS. If you've taken two (and often more) years off between high school and college, you didn't end up going back for your degree by accident.

This story may be good news material, but it's not even the most touching GS story I've heard. We have veterans who were discharged under DADT, we have current and former performers and Olympic-level athletes - one of my classmates represented her country in Miss Universe 2008 and has been running her own business since then (she also graduated this afternoon). Another spent her teenage years in the foster care system and took classes at a community college to bring herself up to speed. I was the president of a student group that dealt with criminal justice reform and drug policy, and I can't count the number of students who've told me truly horrific stories of the criminal justice system and the war on drugs. Oftentimes these are stories of their family members, but a few have experienced it firsthand.

I wasn't even a GS student, but the single best part of my Columbia education was probably having the opportunity to meet people who come from such varied backgrounds and bring such a wide range of experiences to the table.

Second, some people seem to be curious about the free tuition: tuition benefits at Columbia are extensive, though controversial. Every employee, including the food servers and janitors, receive a living wage (not a market wage) and full health benefits. There's been talk of scaling the benefits back, though; this is not a matter of tuition specifically, but benefit cuts across the board.[3]. As it stands, I believe most employees are eligible for one free class per semester (three per year, including the summer). This is most commonly applied towards MA programs, as they're 1 or 2 years - doing the 124 credits required for a BA would take quite a while at this rate!

And unrelated, but possibly of interest: John Backus and Isaac Asimov were both GS alumni.

[1] http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/05/02/general-studies-...

[2] http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2010/03/09/gs-diplomas-rema...

[3] http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2011/04/19/report-recommend...

Learning never stops unless the individual decides it stops. Congratulations to Mr Filipaj for overcoming obstacles and challenges.

Does this remind anyone else of Good Will Hunting?

Yeah I am actually really surprised the article didn't reference the movie even once.

That was the first thing that came to my mind. I wonder if you can prove a statistical probability that if a story happened in a movie that it could eventually take place in real life.


The skills to get a degree do not always translate to the skills necessary to hold down a high paying or prestigious job. It's possible though you can't tell from the article that he is content doing the stuff that he is doing and doesn't want something else.

    He's not interested in furthering his studies to make more money.

    "The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head, not in my pockets," said Filipaj, who is now an American citizen.

From the article:

> He's not interested in furthering his studies to make more money.

> "The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head, not in my pockets," said Filipaj, who is now an American citizen.

This is the best kind of student, hands down.

key point in the article - he was studying law before he came in the 90s. he may have a job as a janitor, but he was definitly college material.

Is the free-tuition-for-employees thing unusual? I had a couple of kids that graduated high school with me get into several different schools because their parents worked there (no professors. mostly janitors, cafeteria workers, etc.) I was under the impression that it was similar to the GI bill for american soliders - an employee could use it, or give it to a family member.

My father is a professor at Iowa State. Everyone assumed I received free tuition, but there were actually no benefits. I 've heard of it at several private schools though.

At Caltech the children of any employee who manage to get in (on their own merits) are given free tuition.

>Is the free-tuition-for-employees thing unusual?

It's certainly true for Toronto and Waterloo universities here in Canada.

I studied at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, and I didn't have to pay for my degree either, because I was working as a custodian/porter ("conserje" or "bedel", if you read Spanish) at Politecnica University also in Madrid. Even though it was a different University, all fees were waived if you worked in the higher education sector. I studied in the late 80s to early 90s, so I don't know if this is still the case.

Mine was a common enough case. In the school where I worked, two more of the conserjes were studying engineering degrees. In the school where I studied (I have a degree in English), at least one of the conserjes was studying a tertiary degree, I don't remember which.

In these circumstances, what I wondered is why didn't more of my younger colleagues pursue further study. You have a salary, a job that leaves you quite a lot of free time to study, and reasonable hours (morning and afternoon/evening shifts) that allow you to attend classes during your non-working shift. And, some years later, you could also have a degree and a modicum of learning (or, in some cases, a lot of learning and no degree: your mileage may vary).

Great for Gac! Me and my fellow worker/students did it at a younger age, in our country of birth, surrounded by a family support network, and with a much cushier jobs (a conserje doesn't have cleaning duties, for instance). Gac sends part of his salary back to his family in the Old Country, while I could use mine to travel around Europe and buy books. In fact, I nowadays I call that job my "scholarship". I didn't have to man the counter of a 7/11 or stock supermarket shelves to pay for my studies, and I graduated with some savings. I didn't always feel privileged, but I was in many ways.

In the article, Gac Filipaj quotes Seneca, the Stoic philosopher. Read his statements again after reading a bit about stoicism[1], and they gain new meaning.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism

I have always seen education as the most important gift that one can give because once its given excluding fatal accidents its something that can never be taken away or lost and is useful throughout you whole life, whether at a job or simply to allow you to see the world through different perspectives.

It is great the the university was able to provide a discounted education to Filipaj and allow a man that wanted to keep studying to do just that.

Just as a side note, i feel that the coursera subjects to be just fantastic, free education from some really great lecturers on some really interesting topics just can't be beat

Yes. In a very no-nonsense personal finance book I read, the author pointed out that it is not always the case that higher rewards always come with higher risk. Time and energy spent improving your health or educating yourself (though they might have opportunity cost) are essentially zero risk. And the benefits can be both financial and quality of life related.

This is a fantastic story. I wish the world had more men like this. If could all live our lives with the same sense of purpose, the world would truly be a better place.

I completely agree, it was a really inspiring read what this man has overcome and to learn about his positive attitude.

Luckily I only have to pay a little for my studies in Germany, though many people are still complaining about the fees. I think they could learn a lot from this mans gratefulness.

An inspiring story. I wish it would prompt a discussion about access to quality education rather than HR policies at elite universities.

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