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.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

US military tried, but failed to rescue journalist…

The U.S. military earlier this year tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria ,but failed to find the captives.

National

Fate of captured beluga whales in hands of…

A Georgia aquarium went to court on Wednesday seeking federal permission to bring 18 captured beluga whales to the United States from Russia.

Local

After Eric Garner death, religious leaders meet to…

Interfaith leaders convened with city officials to discuss what the community can do to help dial down heightened tensions after Eric Garner's death.

Local

'Suspicious' Hamilton Heights fire caused by power strip:…

An extension cord overload caused the deadly fire in Hamilton Heights late Monday that killed a 15-year-old girl and injured at least 12 others.

Television

'So You Think You Can Dance' recap: Season…

And then there were six. It was a big night on stage as the Top 6 got to dance with each other, All-star partners and perform a solo routine.

Television

'Doctor Who' personality profile: the 4 Doctors

When the time comes for a new Doctor, there's always some anxiety over the big question: Who will he be? The series owes its longevity…

Television

Billy Crystal to commemorate late actor Robin Williams…

  Comedian Billy Crystal will pay tribute to late actor Robin Williams at television's Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 25, the show's organizers said on…

Going Out

Things to do this week in NYC, Aug.…

GAMES Hudson Common Open Aug. 21, 7 p.m. Hudson Common 356 W. 58 St. Free, www.hudsoncommonnyc.com The U.S. Open begins on Monday, but most of…

NFL

Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.

NFL

Jalen Saunders still unsure what caused car accident…

Jets rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since his car accident, but he didn't say a whole lot.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL defense (DEF)

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL quarterbacks (QB)

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…

Wellbeing

Metabolic syndrome could have a sugar link

Scientists in St. Louis may have found another culprit in metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Uric acid is…

Wellbeing

Another way stress hurts your unborn baby

Mothers know to try staying calm during pregnancy, as stress has been linked to behavioral and developmental problems for their babies. But now, a new…