Author paid way through Duke by living in van

astewart@newsobserver.comJuly 6, 2013 

  • Details

    What: Ken Ilgunas reads from his book “Walden on Wheels”

    When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham

    Cost: Free

    Info: 919-286-2700 or regulatorbookshop.com

When Ken Ilgunas advises college students to think twice before racking up debt, that advice comes from the heart.

He earned a master’s degree from Duke University without a dime of debt. All it took was living in a van for two years.

Ilgunas, 30, describes his unorthodox tuition strategy in a new book, “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom.” Now a full-time writer, he’s coming back to Durham on Tuesday to read from it at the Regulator Bookshop.

“You have to reframe the way you think about debt,” he said.

“Debt is the enemy. Debt is a life-and-death situation.”

Doing so takes fortitude, though. He suggests approaching the situation with creativity and boldness and forgetting what is socially expected or appropriate.

After earning “useless” (his word) degrees in history and English from the University at Buffalo, Ilgunas realized he would need to go back to school to learn a marketable job skill. For three years, he worked in Alaska in odd positions such as a tour guide, a park ranger and a housekeeper, and dug his way out of a $32,000 hole before hitchhiking back home to New York.

Hoping to become a journalist, Ilgunas pursued a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. While he attended Duke, he slept and ate in his car to keep costs to a minimum. To make money, he participated in more than 25 research studies on campus, such as taking experimental anti-seizure pills and being part of a “control group” for brain scans of schizophrenics.

His red, beat-up 1994 Ford Econoline, which Ilgunas called his “Walden on wheels,” served as his home, and a campus parking lot became his backyard. It was there that he lived in secret until he was sanctioned for squatting on private property. Duke then made a rule that “vandwellers” were not allowed to live on campus.

This adventure prompted Ilgunas to write “Walden on Wheels,” the culmination of his journey. The title is a nod to transcendentalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau, a proponent of frugality and simple living.

“It’s a travel memoir about five years of my life in which I dealt with student debt,” he said. “It’s a coming-of-age journey.”

Exasperating struggles and money problems aside, Ilgunas says he doesn’t regret his six-plus years of schooling, though accruing exorbitant debt his freshman year at a private school taught him about how to get his money’s worth.

“My friends were all tickled (about living in a van),” he said. To break the news to his mother, Ilgunas buried the admission in an email about his recent activities: “playing lots of basketball, living in a van, writing a paper ...”

She was not thrilled, he said.

The nomadic Ilgunas doesn’t sit still for long. Since graduating from high school, he has lived in Ontario, New York, Alaska, Mississippi and North Carolina. He frequently hitchhikes and most recently spent four and a half months walking across the 1,700-mile Keystone Pipeline XL from Canada to Texas. That adventure is the subject of his next book.

He is also working on a third book about his radical approach to overcoming student debt. While most professionals and guidebooks advise recent graduates to allocate 8 to 15 percent of their salary to paying off debt, Ilgunas recommends dedicating 100 percent of their income until it’s paid off.

Even if that means living in a vehicle.

Though he isn’t ready to settle down yet, Ilgunas says he is done with hitchhiking. As he works on his next two books, he awaits inspiration for his next big adventure.

In the meantime, he will attempt to stay still for a couple hours Tuesday evening to read and discuss “Walden on Wheels” at the Regulator Bookshop. But no promises.

Tom Campbell, who owns the Regulator Bookshop, said Ilgunas’ adventures remind him of another era.

“There were people in the ’60s and ’70s doing things like this to pay for school,” he said. “People don’t do things like this anymore.”

Campbell didn’t realize Ilgunas lived in a van parked right across the street from his store until “Walden on Wheels” came out.

If he had only known, “the sofa here (at the Regulator) is a pullout,” he said.

Stewart: 919-829-4568

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