Grad school in a van to live debt-free

Ken Ilgunas enjoys a meal in the spacious dining area of his van.
Ken Ilgunas enjoys a meal in the spacious dining area of his van.

Students in the U.S. now live in the shadow of a collective total of one trillion dollars of debt. For Ken Ilgunas, escaping that debt was a matter of determination — and he was willing to live in a van to prove it. In his new book, “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom,” Ilgunas enumerates, with considerable grace and humor, his adventures living in a red Econoline van, retrofitted for graduate school at Duke University.

After graduating with just over $30,000 in debt from his undergraduate education at the University of Buffalo, Ilgunas threw every particle of his being and hour of wakefulness toward paying it off. He got used to a lifestyle of roughing it while living in a tent as a back country ranger and hitchhiked to Alaska where he worked a variety of jobs.

Two and a half years later, he had paid off his debt. He vowed that he wouldn’t go into that hole again — but he wasn’t ready to give up on the life of a scholar.

So, Ilgunas sent out applications to graduate schools that fit his academic standards as well as his climactic ones — after all, temperature is a big deal if you’re planning to live in a van on the campus parking lot.

“Most of the sacrifices [of van living] were more social. You can’t bring friends to your van to have a couple drinks and watch a movie,” he says, with a self-effacing laugh. “The thought of telling a girl that I lived in a van in a place like Duke…it was just horrifying.”

Though Ilgunas lived in fear of being caught by campus police, he got away with studying in the library and showering at the campus gym. For him, it was worth it because of the education he was getting in liberal studies, where he could take courses across a variety of disciplines.

“One course might contain elements of several disciplines — history, biology, neuroscience — all wrapped into one. You can find yourself reading Jane Austen alongside a science document,” he says. “That unconventional approach often leads to breakthroughs.” In Ilgunas’ mind, it gave him the freedom he didn’t always have in his constricted lifestyle.

Ultimately, Ilgunas’ adventure gave him the kind of life he had always relished. “I always felt deep down that I was meant to live a free and adventure-filled life,” he says. The van-dwelling made both of these things possible.

“People kind of think of their student debt as almost another inevitable payment, something like car insurance that you’re expected to pay every month for 25 years. I wanted to take a much more radical approach,” he says.

Ilgunas’ radical approach to life and unique sense of humor is what makes “Walden on Wheels” a great read. But debt-conscious students should be forewarned — the Duke University handbook has now been updated with a clause that bans living in a van.

Ilgunas' book, "Walden on Wheels" is available starting on May 14.
Ilgunas’ book, “Walden on Wheels” is available starting on May 14.

Q & A: What is your advice to students now?

I would say don’t listen to what some people say about the liberal arts. I think it’s silly to deride them as a waste of time, that’s like saying a walk in the woods or having a child — these things aren’t entirely practical but we don’t deride them.



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