Dorm, Shmorm: Meet the Guy Who Lived in a Van for Two Years During Grad School

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Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Many grad school students are poor, and pride themselves on living frugally while working on their degrees. One post-graduate student—and now, the author of a new book—took cheap living to the extreme, living in a van while taking classes at Duke University.

Before earning a graduate degree in liberal studies at Duke, Ken Ilgunas earned a certain level of fame, writing a much-circulated story for Salon.com in 2009 about his highly unusual living arrangements. Instead of renting an apartment, Ilgunas bought a 1994 Econoline van, where he slept and cooked while attending grad school in the late ’00s. Ilgunas expanded his original essay into the new book Walden on Wheels. It’s an account of his experiences as a “vandwelling” grad student, as well as his travels around the country working menial jobs to pay off $32,000 in student loan debt accumulated while getting an undergraduate degree.

In the Q&A that follows, we pick the author’s brain on topics such as debt, frugal living, the value of college degrees, and what it’s like to eat a bowl of cereal and discover you’ve swallowed the poop of the mouse that lives in your van.

Your early 20s seem to have been dominated by the burden of student debt, and your mission to get out from under it. In retrospect, do you second guess any of the things you did to get out of debt or to avoid taking on more debt? Do you feel like you missed out on anything worthwhile because you were focused on being so frugal?
Ken Ilgunas: I don’t second guess my approach at all. When I think back on those days, I’m proud of how determined and focused I was, and impressed with how swiftly I paid it off. At first, I felt I was “missing out” because some of my peers were continuing their education in graduate school while I was stuck working fairly menial jobs. But, after a while, I realized I was receiving a very different sort of education, and one just as valuable, perhaps more so. I was hitchhiking, living in Alaska, working odd jobs, and meeting a lot of really eccentric people. Even though I was burdened with debt, I found that there were many times that I was grateful I wasn’t embalmed in some stuffy graduate program.

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At what point, if ever, did you feel like maybe you’d gone overboard in the hopes of saving money? The mouse poop incident, perhaps?
KI: The mouse poop incident — though gross — was still only a minor inconvenience, and it wasn’t something that would have made me think about leaving the van to live in an apartment I couldn’t afford. That said, there were certainly times when living in a van was “inconvenient.” For instance, I couldn’t step foot in the van on a hot day because it was deathly hot inside. And it wasn’t fun to have to change my clothes on a winter morning when it was 10 degrees outside (and inside). But these were just momentary discomforts and nothing that put my health at risk. After all, I had a big college nearby, so I was able to stay warm or cool in campus buildings, take showers, charge my electronics, and access free Wi-Fi. Compared to living conditions in some cultures, I had it pretty good.

What are the top practical bits of advice you would give to a novice who is considering “vandwelling,” either due to necessity or as some kind of experiment or adventure? Can you give us a handful of quick tips?
KI: 1. Bring the essentials: sleeping bag, headlamp, camping stove of some sort, and a cooking pot.

2. Ensure stealth. Buy a van that already has blinds on the windows, and get some dark fabric to hang behind the two front seats. That way, no one will ever be able to see you inside.

3. Look normal. Dress nicely and maintain hygiene. If you look normal, no one will ever suspect you’re living in your van.

4. Don’t drink any liquids before you go to bed.

5. Come to terms with your new life of celibacy.

If you had to do college all over again, what would you do differently? Would you have gone to college at all?
KI: If I could redo my undergraduate education, I probably wouldn’t have spent my first year at a pricey private school, where I racked up $18,000 in debt in just that one year. It would have been wiser to commute from my home to the local, and far more affordable, state school, which I would end up doing for the next four years. But, at the time I graduated from high school, I had a terrible itch to move away from home, and I do think that getting away for that one year did me a lot of good, as it helped me scratch itches that would have otherwise irritated me for the next several years. And yes, I most certainly would have gone to college. I went into college a slacker and came out a much more well-rounded person, so I’ve always been very grateful for my education.

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Along those lines: What advice would you give to a high school student today who is unsure of where to go to college, if at all, or what to study?
KI: If you’re not sure you want to go to college, I think it’s best to take a year or two off. Find a camp job in Alaska. Save $5K and hike the Appalachian Trail. Join an AmeriCorps program. Stick out your thumb on the highway and see the country in ways so few have. When we graduate from high school, we think we only have one path–and that leads to college. But really, there a million different paths we can follow.

As for what to study… Go to an affordable school and study whatever the hell interests you. Undergraduate school helps us become citizens. Graduate school and careers can come later.

Under what circumstances would you go into debt again?

I’d go into debt if a family member needed me. Or, if I wanted to purchase property, I’d consider going into debt, but only if I had good job security and assurance that I wouldn’t have the debt for long.

It’s become very popular to bash liberal arts degrees as impractical and pointless. Several times in your book, you call your own degree useless. And yet you went back to get a master’s in liberal studies. Why?
KI: I do call it “useless,” and I guess that’s my way of addressing the prevailing viewpoint while teasing myself. In all honesty, though, I think the liberal arts help us become empathetic, introspective, and conscientious citizens, who are critical for a functioning democracy. And I can’t help but link the waning of the liberal arts to a society that appears to be as deceived as ever by corporate and political propaganda.

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As for why I went back to a liberal arts program, I wanted to be the best person I could be. I wanted to be smart and wise and someone who knew how to live his life. I didn’t think I’d figure those things out in business school.

So how do you respond when people say there’s no point in studying liberal arts?
KI: There’s no point in having kids, either. There’s no point in playing the guitar or going for walks in the woods. There’s little to no “practical” value to any of the above. But these things are embraced by so many because they bring us fulfillment, joy, and meaning. Reading Plato and studying Italian cinema and going to school for the liberal arts should be treated no differently. And while I don’t think one should have to justify a liberal arts education on terms of practicality, I do think there are a lot of practical benefits, starting with improved critical thinking, enhanced writing skills, and acquainting ourselves with the wisdom of our forefathers that will help us deal with many of life’s trials.

2 comments
SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Thanks so much for this profile of an eccentric but fascinating individual who creates his life rather than trying to fit into one not of his choosing. While I would never live in a van or any vehicle unless it was Willy Nelson's tour bus, and do not fear being in some debt as he does, I certainly agree with his take on the value of a liberal arts education. If only we could get corporate America to understand its value to society and to their bottom line. Today, we expect universities to be vocational schools instead of institutions of higher learning. For society to remain cohesive and healthy there needs to be a core education that familiarizes us with the highest aspirations of human existence; it can't just be about money, marketing, and metrics.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

I lived in my car a lot in the late nineties. I actually opted for that over having a job. But when I say a lot, I am talking maybe two months total per year added up for each of those years.