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

Bloomberg: Going green will grant you longer life…

Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg tells Metro that cities are where fighting global warming can make a difference, and increase people’s lifespan.

International

Ban Ki Moon: "Climate change is an issue…

My message to you is: make your voice heard and your actions count. Change is in the air. Solutions exist. The race is on. It’s time to lead.

Local

Earth Day New York food toolkits to help…

Hundreds of classrooms across New York City already have indoor container gardens that allow students to grow food right where they learn. But Earth Day…

Local

NYPD announces street closures for United Nations General…

The United Nations representatives are in town, and multiple city streets will be closed to traffic through Saturday, Sept. 26. The NYPD is urging those…

Television

10 Facts you won’t learn about Frankie Grande…

Frankie Grande is the worst and/or the best. Whether or not you're a fan, you'll want to know these facts about the polarizing player from "Big Brother 16."

Movies

Antoine Fuqua can kill someone with just a…

It's amazing what you can get done with the right tools. In designing the climactic battle in "the Equalizer," in which Denzel Washington's retired special…

Movies

Guess Ben Kingsley's worst filmmaking experience

Here's a fun game: Sir Ben Kingsley has made a lot of films since "Gandhi" in 1982, but at least one of them was a…

Books

Does Lena Dunham have any secrets left?

Get a sneak peek at her new book to determine if it’s worth the read.

NFL

3 things that went wrong in Jets loss…

The Jets have very little room for error with a far-from-explosive offense.

NFL

Eli Manning finally feeling good in West Coast…

The Giants have very little time before their next game, but they still took a moment to relish the team’s biggest offensive outburst since Week 1 of 2013.

College

College football top 25 poll: Oregon, Alabama close…

College football top 25 poll: Oregon, Alabama close in on FSU

NFL

Jay Cutler takes Marc Trestman's coaching to heart

While Jay Cutler turned to an autobiography on the man who would be his head coach, Trestman had personal experience with the player.

Wellbeing

Exercising leads to more drinking — and we…

  We’re rewarding ourselves with more than dessert on days we exercise, according to a new study. On days when people exercise more, typically Thursday…

Wellbeing

5 gadgets to protect you from sharks, concussions,…

The medical industry is inundated with devices looking after all aspects of your wellbeing, from monitoring your sleep patterns to warding off shark attacks. We…

Wellbeing

Narcissism and the ugly side of vanity

I have a friend who constantly talks about herself and rarely asks any questions about my life. She is constantly preening, obsessed with her body,…

Wellbeing

Lacking new ideas, Apple Watch disappoints health experts

Technology pundits were quick to predict the demise of most fitness wristbands and smartwatches when the Apple Watch was announced. But health care professionals and…