COLUMBUS, Ga. (KTVU) - Within 12 hours of making sure the floors and stands were cleared and ready for the next graduation ceremony at Columbus State University's Lumpkin Center, custodian Gary Freeman returned to the auditorium on Saturday-- but this time in a cap and gown marking a momentous occasion that was a long time coming.
It took nine years for the 58-year-old custodian to receive his Bachelor of Business Administration degree.
The journey has been a long one for Freeman, who graduated from high school almost 40 years ago to the day.
He says when he was 12, his father left his family and Freeman had to start working to help his mother pay the bills, so college was not an option after high school.
But he never gave up on his dream to get a degree.
Shortly after he took the custodian job at CSU, Freeman took advantage of a tuition assistance program the university offers its employees. He began taking classes as a part-time student.
He managed his academic workload and also made strides on the job, being promoted to a custodial team leader.
He showed up for work everyday and worked hard. In fact, the night before his graduation, he was at the Lumpkin Center working his usual shift well into the early morning hours.
The next day, he found himself among fellow students, walking across the stage to accept his degree, the extraordinary circumstances of the moment not lost on the graduate.
"I consider it very special to graduate in the building that I have been cleaning for nine years," Freeman was quoted saying in a Columbus State News article.
Freeman told KTVU that having that degree in hand meant so much. "I was just overwhelmed," he said.
As he stood on that stage, he said he kept thinking, "At last, here it is! At last!"
The dedicated employee didn't take any time off to celebrate this milestone. On Monday, the new graduate was back at work making his rounds on campus, receiving a chorus of congratulations from colleagues and others.
Freeman says he plans to continue working in his current job for now and will send out resumes soon, to seek a job related to his major in Management Information Systems.
Members of the CSU community are hailing Freeman as an inspiration.
"Not only is he the kind of worker we want at CSU, he is a reminder of why we are all here at this university: to provide an environment where people can get a higher education that can improve their lives," said Freeman's supervisor Steve Morse.
Freeman himself says it feels good to know he may be an example to others.
"Education is an ongoing process," he says. He adds that he will continue to encourage those around him to keep learning.