Fri June 10, 2011
Wheatfield grad student reflects upon living in van at Duke
By Sharon Osorio
Buffalo, NY – A graduate student from Wheatfield who made national headlines for living in a van while attending Duke University has now graduated from Duke and his van.
WBFO's Sharon Osorio spoke with Ken Ilgunas, who was the student speaker at his department's graduation.
"You're probably wondering what it's like to live in a vehicle..."
27-year-old Ken Ilgunas of Wheatfield speaks before his graduate liberal studies department graduation ceremony at Duke University. He was chosen for this role by the department's director. Not bad for a guy who startled the Duke community in 2009 when he revealed that he'd been living in a van while attending school there, with the goal of staying debt-free.
"It was a secret for a while," says Ilgunas. "I was parked in a campus parking lot for that year, those first two semesters. No one knew about me. It was this big creepy van sitting there, but no one suspected that anyone was living there. I mean, who lives in their van?"
Ilgunas showered at the school's gym facilities and used the Internet and electricity at the library. Before starting at Duke, Ilgunas had worked hard to pay off more than $30,000 in debt from his undergraduate education, and did not want to get stuck in that bind again. But van-life wasn't easy, and it became an education in itself.
"I recognize that there was a gaping hole in my life where people should have been -- friends, and a girlfriend and whatnot, so in that way I recognized the limitation of what I was doing and how it really wasn't an example of how one should live their life," he reflects. "But at the same time, it was satisfactory in that it was just very exciting keeping this big secret."
His parents would choose other words to describe their son's experience and his insistence on not allowing them to help him with rent money. His mother, Tina, was not on-board with the van.
"At first I was mortified," says Tina Ilgunas. "I thought something was wrong with him to do something like that. But the more you talk to Ken, he really makes a lot of sense. In fact, I've learned quite a few things from my son myself. I didn't like it. I could never live that lifestyle, but I talk to people and after they've talked to him and stuff they say he's such a great person and he's got great ideas."
Ilgunas says during his first semester at Duke, he lived on $103 a week, not including tuition payments. And he figures he saved more than $11,000 total by not renting an apartment.
He kept his secret under wraps for about a year until he revealed the truth in an essay for his Travel Writing course.
"I thought, I think an essay about living in my van would be a lot of fun to write and amusing for the people in class because we'd have to read our essays out loud," says Ilgunas. "So, at the end of the semester, I wrote that essay and my professor said, It's really good. You should submit it to a magazine.' And it kind of struck me -- maybe I could get this published. So she had a friend at Salon and she sent it to Salon for me, and it published, and it just went viral."
Then came a flood of interview requests from news outlets and talk shows -- even an offer to renovate his van for a TV show. The fanfare did die down, but Ilgunas continued living another two semesters in the van.
During this past spring semester, when Ilgunas was working on his final project and did not have to attend class, he lived on a farm instead, using his van for driving. But now, the van is for sale.
"I would totally do it again," Ilgunas says. "The experiences I've had both in the classroom and the van -- it's borderline transformative. You can't leave a learning environment and experiment like this without having been transformed in some way. Was I unhappy a good deal of the time, keeping it a secret and being lonely? Sure. But through struggle, you change, you grow."
Andy Leardini, of College Financing Group in Youngstown, says paying for college is taxing on many families during this tough economy, especially when some parents are used to providing their children with everything they want.
"What I tell my families is to select six to eight different schools," Leardini says. "Have a fallback school - one, that you know you're going to get into, and two, that you'll be happy and has your major and will be a good fit, and an affordable fit prior to financial aid. Then the others, after the admissions process come January, you file all the financial aid. Then you wait until usually anywhere between March and April, and you'll get the award letters, and then you can sit down and compare apples to apples."
"It can be very paradoxical for someone who's had a wonderful experience for the past four years, met a whole bunch of people, lived a semi-independent lifestyle and learned a whole bunch of stuff, but then they have to deal with, How am I going to pay off my $30,000 undergrad school debt?' So then it brings into question, Was it worth it?" And it's very difficult to answer when something is part of your character development."
Sharon Osorio, WBFO News.