Student Snapshot: Ken Ilgunas, the Man in the Van

June 1, 2010
Modern-day Thoreau: Ilgunas at center of his radical living experiment.

Modern-day Thoreau: Ilgunas at center of his radical living experiment. Jon Gardiner

By the time the U.S. Congress took action to reform student loans this spring, Duke graduate student Ken Ilgunas was more than a year into his own reform experiment: His home is his van.

The 1994 Ford Econoline, which he bought on the day he moved to North Carolina to begin taking classes toward his master's degree in liberal studies, sits in an undisclosed university-affiliated lot. Inside, it is tidy, with the seats removed from the back, leaving room for a sizable sleeping area. He keeps a bit of food—peanut butter peeking out from inside a plastic shelving set—and a camping stove, on which he sometimes prepares simple meals like oatmeal or spaghetti.

Ilgunas is conducting this experiment in what he terms "radical living" with two main purposes in mind—saving money and living right. A devotee of Thoreau, he is interested in pursuing a life outside the "consumer-capitalist complex," one in which he can more clearly understand the difference between his needs and wants.

For example, he lists among his needs: good, healthy food (he says he eats vegetables and fruits in addition to his peanut butter and starchy entrees, and that he doesn't consume dairy or meat products and seldom drinks); shelter (the van is "more than sufficient"); clothing (because nudity is not an option); and access to nature (he has twice been a backwoods ranger with the National Park Service). Wants include: access to books and movies (he spends a lot of time in the library); hiking boots (he's just bought a new pair); and seasonings (ascetics can like flavor, too). "I'm happy, I'm comfortable, and it's fun living in a van," he says.

Ilgunas says that what he's doing is not a rebellious thrill. He lives in his van primarily to save money. After graduating with a bachelor's degree from the University of Buffalo, he was saddled with $32,000 of debt. For the next few years, he took a variety of low-paying jobs to pay it off, and before coming to Duke, managed to settle up with his creditors. Ilgunas believes the cost of higher education at private schools is astronomical and that taking out loans in order to pay for it has disastrous consequences for the individual and for society at large.

"No one talks about their debt," he says. "It's something you have to detach yourself from." He believes that universities, by encouraging this kind of avoidance and irresponsibility with large sums of money, in effect educate students to incur even greater debt later in life. Not to mention that the need to repay student loans often discourages students from choosing less remunerative, but more socially conscious, career paths after graduating.

Ilgunas keeps a blog of his marginal living situation, and in December, it drew the attention of an editor with the website, who invited Ilgunas to publish a column about his experiences. The story got popular quickly, spreading around the Internet and attracting the attention of several national news outlets. Agents have called, and there is a strong possibility he will write a book about his experiences.

But the best thing to come out of his newfound fame is that a number of people, some more offbeat than others, have contacted him about meeting or to propose collaborative projects. Ilgunas is interest in pursuing some of them but is mum on any specifics. It's enough that, in his isolation, he's finding he's far from alone.