Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The "Dare Mighty Things" Scholarship

I am familiar with rejection. I’ve been rejected by colleges (13), potential employers (15+), internships (50+) and women (lost count long ago).

Yes, I’ve been rejected a lot. But, like anyone who’s consistently failed, I’ve developed ways to deal with it.

First, you remind yourself about all the great people who failed early on in life, but who, in the end—with tireless perseverance and unflinching resolve—proved their naysayers wrong. Then you—from the confinement of your home—cast invectives, declare revenge, violently bang your head against a mattress, and aspire to “show” your rejecter just how wrong he was. And then, finally, you get really, really drunk. Works every time.

For some reason, the sting of a rejected scholarship application tends to linger. Perhaps it’s because there are always other jobs, internships and girls out there in that great big sea. But when it comes to getting money for college, you’re shit out of luck if you can’t get a scholarship.

I don’t know how many of my scholarship applications have been rejected. Perhaps, someday, a team of scientists will create an equation that could help me make a reasonably close estimate. But for now, let’s just says it’s “a lot.”

When I applied to scholarships in high school, I didn’t have much going for me. The problem was multifold:

1.) I had a pedestrian high school academic record: I was ranked (a very mediocre) 77th in my high school class of 200, I passed my final physics exam by only one point, and I didn't impress any of my teachers.

2.) I had no interests or passions outside of girls, hockey, football, the Buffalo Sabres and my irrational desire to drive to Alaska. I never volunteered, took part in clubs, or held student office. I was, yes, a slacker. And no matter the amount of gloss I brushed onto my applications, I could never fool the people making the decisions.

3.) I was never right for a scholarship. I never fit the requirements. I didn’t have the grades, the bullshit clubs, or the sports accolades. I had something, but nothing that a scholarship committee could ever see.

My scholarship rejection streak finally ended during the first of my two senior years of college when I won a $1,000 award from the University at Buffalo's history department. But by then, my debt had accumulated to such unfathomable proportions that this little bit of money was too little, too late; it felt like I was approaching a burning building with a glass of water.

Before I came to Duke, I decided to give scholarships one more chance. Besides, I thought, I have a whole bunch of interesting life experiences to draw from and a strong undergraduate record to brag about. I even—I’m ashamed to say—told scholarship committees about my intention to live in the van to hopefully guilt them into giving me their money. Sure enough, all my applications were rejected. By this time, though, I’d known what to expect. It was up to me to fund my education.

So here’s what I want to do. I want to create a scholarship for someone like me; for someone whose potential cannot be measured by a GPA, SAT or GRE score; for someone who’s gotten no help from schools and scholarship committees because each other's goals never aligned; and for someone who is passionate, not just about succeeding—whatever that means—but living.

The scholarship I've made will be for college students (juniors and seniors) on the verge of graduating. Instead of being kicked into career-world or pushed back into a graduate school, I want to encourage students to forget about planning for the future and to focus on living the present. Plus, I think a traveler gets the most out her journey--and the people she meets get the most out of her--when she sets off with a degree's worth of eduction in her head.


This past June I wrote a post titled “Belated Manifesto” in which I sent money back to parents and friends because I thought their gifts interfered with my goal to graduate “debt-free.” For good reason, I got some less-than-positive feedback from the readers of this blog. And while my family was good-natured about the gesture, they refused to take the money.

So now I have $910.90 that isn’t mine, that interferes with my goal, and that—most oddly—I can’t get rid of. I decided I’d give it to a charity, but then I thought: why not create a “charity” of my own?

I’m pleased to announce that I will be giving away the first ever “Dare Mighty Things” Scholarship this winter, in honor of one of my favorite quotes (that was penned by the hand of Teddy Roosevelt):

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Indeed, Teddy, indeed! My scholarship is designed to support students who wish to embark on an adventure of their own creation. I believe that for people to realize their fullest potential, it’s necessary to have some combination of focused academic study and broad worldly experiences. Each type of learning complements the other. On our journey, we see what’s wrong with the world, and in the academy, we acquire the tools to fix it.

While $900 will do nothing, it’s a start, and I’m hoping I can raise another $100 from the good readers of this blog to round it up to a nice $1,000. If we don’t raise that much, I’ll pay the rest on my own, and if—by chance—we exceed that goal, I’ll just put it toward next year’s scholarship. And I don’t think I have to say this but: know that none of this money will enter my pocket.

Three more things:

1.) I’ve named my best friend, fellow student debtor, and charity expert, Josh Pruyn, the Executive Vice President of the Dare Mighty Things Scholarship Foundation. He’ll help me sift through applications. I intend to advertise this on scholarship websites, so hopefully we'll get a good pile of applications.

2.) For more info about our mission and requirements, you can click this link, or just click on the tab below the photo of me standing next to the van titled "Scholarship."

3.) The winner will have his/her application essay posted on this blog; and hopefully we can get pictures/stories/etc. from their journey.

Oh, and if you care to donate, just press the “Donate” button below. Thanks so much!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Letter to Duke Administration

[I wrote the following email to Duke administration--which will probably wind up in the hands of their parking department--to express my opposition to a proposed parking regulation that may prohibit students from living in their vehicles in the future. While I realize my letter will not deter them for making their proposed changes, I thought it would have been remiss of me to do nothing. Allegedly, they were going to change their regulations as soon as a couple nights ago, so I only had a few hours to write this sucker. I'd like to polish it up some because I have plans to do something "bigger" with it. So please--if I've left out any arguments that you think may help me make a stronger case--do share!]

To Whom It May Concern:

It has come to my attention that Duke intends to change its parking regulations. I’m specifically referring to a regulation that will prohibit students from living in their vehicles in the future. If this is the case, then I courteously request that this letter be considered before such a change is made.

I’ve been living in my van at Duke for close to two years now, and it is difficult for me to understand why such a regulation is necessary. I could go on for hours about the many benefits of living in my van, or “vandwelling,” as we vandwellers call it.

I could share with you how having a quiet, solitary hermitage has allowed me to focus on my studies. I could tell you about the simple joys of feeling more in touch with the natural world, experiencing changes in temperature, falling asleep to serenading insects, and waking up to cheerful birdsong. I could tell you about how living minimally has been an education in itself and how I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life. I could tell you how I have a much stronger purchase on what I think my few wants and even fewer needs are. I could also tell you about how much money I’ve saved. In fact, I will tell you about this one.

Just before I came to Duke, I had $4,000 in the bank and no possessions of any significant value. I bought my van—a 1994 Ford Econoline—ten miles south of Raleigh for $1,500. Between tuition and fees, I’d pay about $2,500 that semester. That is $4,000 spent on those two purchases alone. Thankfully, I was able to pay my tuition that semester in installments--convenient for me because I would have otherwise been broke from the get-go. But, needless to say, I was strapped for cash. And when I factored in other necessary expenditures (food, gas, car insurance, cell phone), I knew I’d never be able to afford rent for an apartment or some other conventional mode of housing. Yes, I could have taken out loans like most students. And yes, I could have postponed my entrance into graduate school, electing instead to continue to work and save, so that--when I did finally came to Duke--I could afford conventional housing. But I’d been out of school for 2.5 years and was dying to get back into the classroom. And going back into debt simply wasn’t an option. That’s because I just paid off $32,000 in student loans from my undergraduate education. While I was able to pay that debt off relatively quickly, it was something I never wanted to be obliged to do ever again.

These past two years at Duke I’ve saved thousands of dollars in apartment rent alone. It seems like the going rate for a modestly priced apartment in the area is about $450 a month. According to my calculations, by the time I graduate (May of 2011), I will have saved $11,250 ($450 x 25 months). Any student at Duke—either from a wealthy or poor background—would agree that that is a lot of money. And when I think that I’d be in five-digits of debt again if it wasn’t for the van, whatever “sacrifices” I’ve made are negligible. Living in a van and saving this money has been worth it, and I say that without the slightest hesitation.

Debt, I’ve learned, is part of the university experience. We students are taught that debt is not something to be avoided, but that it’s normal; that it’s expected; and that it’s “how things are done.” To buy something, the university experience doesn’t teach students to save and then pay for it; it teaches us to buy it now and pay for it later. My point is that universities teach their students—whether they intend to or not—to be financially irresponsible.

Not only will this way of thinking plunge thousands of students deeper into debt, but it impacts the way they will handle their money for the rest of their lives. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors at our university are prohibited from seeking off campus housing and are forced to pay for exorbitantly priced meal plans. And now that students may soon be barred from living in vehicles, another cost-saving alternative will be eliminated, and the university takes yet another action that needlessly forces its students to make irresponsible financial decisions.

I realize that no one in the university administration actually desires that Duke students go into debt. And I’m sure that the people involved in creating this new regulation are merely looking out for the safety and best interests of my fellow students.

I suspect that the powers that be think living in your van makes you a more vulnerable target; that burglars might be more tempted to break into a vehicle crammed with stuff. While I’ve heard fellow classmates complain about break-ins and stolen items, no one, as far as I know, has laid a finger on my van. Think about it: No one wants to break into a vehicle if there’s the slightest chance that someone’s in there. Theft, anyway, was never a worry for me because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. I carry my few valuables—camera, laptop, and cell phone—with me everywhere. If someone were to break into my van when I was away from it, I wouldn’t be too worried about someone lifting my sleeping bag, backpacking stove, or suitcase filled with old, faded clothes. Sure, I will acknowledge that a vehicle may be a more appealing target for burglars than, say, an apartment or dorm, but I strongly doubt that a larger presence of vandwellers would increase the rate of car theft.

Perhaps you’re concerned that the cold or heat creates unsafe living conditions. Again, I can confirm through my own experience that this is not an issue, at least in Durham it’s not. Hundreds of students in K-Ville live in similar conditions during the coldest time of the year, yet few would say that they’re in jeopardy of anything more than mild discomfort. The spring and fall heat can make things uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but never did I consider it a threat to my health. In fact, over the course of my four semesters at Duke, I can only think of one day when I felt sick.

I presume that you’re also worried about some freak accident that may result in a crippling lawsuit that would devastate the university. I view such a concern with sympathy, but it seems like this can be avoided. Why not have students who desire to reside in their vehicles sign a release and assumption of risk contract?—the sort that I just signed, which will ensure that Duke is not liable to compensate its vehicle-dwelling students if something unexpected and undesired were to happen.

I write all this knowing full well that I’m probably the only person on campus living in his vehicle, and that there’s a reasonable chance that no one may even think about it for decades. So why am I writing this plea—you may be wondering—when the change will affect just a few prospective students, if any? I hope that you will reconsider your new regulation because I think such a change has unwanted symbolic consequences that may undermine what the university stands, or should stand for.

It shows that the university is not doing all it can to give their students options to cut back and save money in difficult economic times. It shows that the university is intolerant of styles of living that may "go against the grain" or fall outside the status quo. It shows that the university is not committed to supporting students who experiment with new ways of thinking and living. How is such a change at all in accordance with Duke's mission to "promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential?"

Living in the van, these past two years, has been a wonderful experience. I’ve excelled in my courses, I’ve been in superb health, I’ve saved (literally) tons of money, and I’ve been extremely happy. What is it about living in the van that is so objectionable that you intend to create a new rule prohibiting students from having similar experiences?

I have received hundreds of emails, messages, and comments in person about my vandwelling experiment. Many students have told me that they, too, plan on doing the same thing on their campuses. It is foresighted of you to consider what your long-term position on this issue should be, but I do not think barring students from living in their vehicles is the right course of action.

Ken Ilgunas

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A new parking lot problem

My parking lot issue is resolved. I had a meeting with a Duke lawyer today.

Going into the meeting, I only wanted two things: 1.) I didn’t want to have to pay for a new parking permit, and 2) I wanted to have some say in the whereabouts of my new lot.

The lawyer told me up front that Duke would be happy to trade permits with me. In fact, he said since my new parking permit is cheaper, I’ll actually get a $100 refund, which is an unexpected surprise—and a timely surprise at that since I’m getting awfully low on cash.

I had a couple ideal parking lots in mind, but he had one in mind too. We walked over to it, I stood there for a moment, did a 360 taking in my surroundings, and then said, “This is fine.”

I don’t want to publicly advertise exactly where I am for the same reason I never disclosed my whereabouts at the Mill Lot. And that’s because—while I have a blog and have, in many regards, taken my experiment public—I wish to have as much privacy as I reasonably can.

Anyway, the lot seems more than sufficient to me. It’s closer to the hub of campus, it’s on a bus route, and it looks as if I’ll have a reasonable amount of privacy. I was also happy to see that it is surrounded by some interesting vegetation.

They also requested I sign a contract, which essentially said that I cannot sue them if something were to happen to me, that I cannot sleep in any other lot, and that I’d no longer live in my van at Duke after May 2011 (when I graduate). You can read it here by clicking the picture below.

I was reluctant to sign a contract, but upon reading it, I couldn’t find anything I objected to.

I certainly understand why large institutions are afraid of lawsuits. And of course if I were to get assaulted in my van, catch frostbit, or be subject to some “act of God”—which all makes vandwelling sound badass—I’d never think about suing Duke or anybody. I knew what risks I was taking, and I was more than willing to deal with whatever ugly issues I might confront on my own.

The only line in that contract that made me think twice was their request that I not live in the van after May 2011. But I didn’t think this was too big a deal since I plan on moving out of Durham after I graduate, and I highly, highly doubt I’ll be going for my PhD here or anywhere for a long, long while, if ever. In fact, this may very well be my last year of formalized education.

I give Duke credit for their classy handling of the situation. Everyone was respectful, and they’ve obviously taken pains to make me feel comfortable. I have nothing but positive things to say about everyone involved.

BUT….. And here’s the big news…. The lawyer told me that Duke, as soon as tonight, is going to rewrite the campus parking regulations, hereby prohibiting all students from living in their vehicles (excepting me of course).

While this new rule has no effect on me, this is something I am opposed to for a thousand reasons. He told me if I wanted to have any say in the matter then I must submit something by tonight. While I’m more than aware that a plea from me will be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, and that they will do whatever it is they want to do, I see it necessaryto at least oppose such a law in the best way I can. So I better get writing!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Uh-oh Pt. 4

I lost. I’m officially getting kicked out of the lot, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I was ready to take a stand. I figured I’d remove the wheels, tie a chain around the tree in front of the van, and then I’d courageously sacrifice my body when they'd tried to cut the chain by blow-torch.

But--due to some new information--I determined that this is a battle that I cannot fight.

1) Duke does not own the lot that I’m parked in; rather, Duke is merely leasing it from the apartment owner. So the lot is privately owned.

2) As shitty as I think it is to kick me out of the lot after two years of harmlessly living in it, I acknowledge the owner’s right to do whatever she wants on the property she owns.

Before I decided to come to Duke, I took a couple precautionary measures. First, I read through the campus parking laws, and was happy to discover that there was nothing that explicitly barred someone from living in their vehicle. And just to make sure, I emailed the campus director of parking and asked him a few questions (of course taking pains not to reveal my true intentions). Here's that email trade that--looking back--contains pertinent information that I overlooked.

Here's my email:

Hi *****,

I have a few parking questions that I hope you can answer. I am an incoming graduate student for this upcoming spring semester and I planned on commuting. According to your website, new graduate students will be permitted to park in the proximate Mill lot. Is this correct? Will I be able to park elsewhere or only in this particular lot?

Also, if I wanted to leave my car in a lot overnight for whatever reason, is that permitted? Do I need an extra permit of some sort?

Thanks for answering my questions,

And his response:

Hi Ken,

Yes, we can place you in Mill parking. Permits, including Mill permits, are restricted to parking only in that specific zone weekdays 7am-4pm. After hours and weekends most other parking zones are available and accessible by swiping your Duke ID at the gate. Overnight parking is fine.

Hope this covers the questions -


When I read his email two years ago, all I saw was “Overnight parking is fine,” and I breezed over the rest of his email. But on second reading, it appears that I really have been breaking the rules all this time.

I won’t bore you with the legal details, but I have a meeting with a Duke lawyer and we’re going to discuss other on-campus parking lot alternatives. One of my professors has also offered her driveway, but it appears Duke is willing to grant me a new permit, which is the option I will most likely take.

A few words about my parking lot before I say adieu…

For the past two years, I’ve lived in the Mill Lot, which is within a stone’s throw of 9th Street—a bustling warren of bars, cafes, and new-age shops on which bums, students, yuppies and southern “old money” comingle.

At first, I hated my lot. It was a two mile walk to the center of campus. In fact, the lot wasn't connected to or anywhere near campus—it was like and island separate from the mainland that first year grad students were exiled to. Plus, it was situated atop an incredibly steep hill. During my first night in the lot, I slept on a sharply graded space that made my blood rush from my head to my toes.

But over time, it grew on me. I started taking the bus to campus; I learned where to park at different times of the day to maximize shade and sunshine (depending on what I needed more of); and the once nettlesome slope issue was easily solved once I developed a knack for detecting the slightest change in gradient the same way a princess can feel the impression of a pea under forty mattresses.

My parking lot was far from problematic; it was ideal: I was right next to coffee shops and a laundromat; I bought fresh breads and vegetables at Whole Foods every day on my walk to campus; it was only a mile away from the elementary school I work at; and it provided more privacy and solitude than I could have ever wished for. (Hardly anyone ever parked up there with me.) In the fall, I could hear the cicadas groan, and in the spring, the dogwood trees were heavy with clusters of lustrous white flowers.

I’ve been changing homes for years, and I’ve put up my fair share of discomforts, so moving from one lot to another is no big deal. But I mean it when I say that I’m going to miss my dear, dear, Mill Lot.

I've put a little goodbye video together, featuring highlights from my stay in the Mill Lot these past couple years.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fall weekend

I had a four-day fall break, which I spent at David's Acorn Abbey and on the Appalachian Trail, where I--from my starting point at Grayson Highlands State Park--hiked north for two days, and then south for another two back to the van.

During the summer, I'd planted sweet potatoes and lots of greens at Acorn Abbey, including beets, turnips, and mustard. David mashed the potatoes and served the greens, adding some local grass-fed beef (in the form of a meatloaf), beet soup, and my first ever homemade pumpkin pie, which was, needless to say, delicious.

I won't bore you with another tale of the AT, but here are some pictures of pretty Fall colors.

Atop a hill were a whole bunch of apples that had recently fallen from an apple tree. I presume that someone once had a home and orchard where the trail now runs. These were superb.

Sometimes the trail passes through a farm or a pasture. I caught this cow picking her nose with her tongue.

I had an unusual experience with this deer. I saw two deer: one far above me on a hill; the other, far below. I tried to get as close as I could to the one up high, doing my best to muffle the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, while keeping my eyes trained on it. The whole time, though--unbeknownst to me--I was walking straight toward this deer. I was startled when I saw how close I was to it: just a good ten yards. Curious, it took a few steps toward me and I took a few toward it. How I wanted nothing more than to rub its back!

For five minutes we did nothing but stare at each other. Then it turned its ass in my direction, which dribbled out a flurry of pellets that fell like little rocks off the sheer side of a cliff. The crazy thing was that the same exact thing happened on my walk back south, two days later, in the same spot.

Now I'm back on campus, enjoying cool autumn nights and mild, sunny days.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Uh-oh Pt. 3

Not much new to report. My director has conveyed my message to the powers that be: that I do not intend to move and that I have a Duke parking permit. I sent her pictures of the van and maps depicting where I'm parked.

It's an awfully strange way to communicate with somebody: having to send messages through a network of directors, deans, lawyers, and an apartment owner. I suppose that's partly why I was taken aback when I got that first email in which I was asked to move out of my lot. I felt like I was being spoken to, not by real people, but by a gaggle of bureaucrats.

Why didn't I get an email straight from the owner? Or why didn't anyone attempt to talk with me in person? College, of course, is a business, and Duke is no exception. You'd like to think the university you go to would treat you differently than a corporation would, but it would be naive of me to think that a billion-dollar institution would handle things in a folksy face-to-face manner.

My lot issue won't be a problem this weekend, anyway, since I'll be driving the van over to David's tomorrow for some pumpkin pie en route to the Appalachian Trail for another four-day hike. (It's my fall break.) I'll update when I can. Happy weekend.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Uh-oh Pt. 2

I've been asked to leave my parking lot. I'm still awaiting more information, but here's what I know so far.

1. A tenant, or tenants, of the apartment (that is adjacent to my lot) has filed a complaint. This person or these persons allegedly said that I and/or my van are making them feel "uncomfortable."

2. The apartment owner has contacted Duke lawyers, informing them of her request to have me move.

3. Duke lawyers have contacted an Associate Dean.

4. That dean contacted my program director, who relayed to me the request that I move.

5. I'm not sure why the owner has chosen this line of action, but I've been told that she is aware of this blog and does not desire negative press.

Of course I'm baffled and somewhat disillusioned that my very low-key presence has upset tenants of the apartment. But I'm more confused with the legal aspects of the situation.

The apartment complex, as far as I know, is not owned by Duke. The complex is owned by a private entity. BUT, part of the parking lot IS owned by Duke. And I pay $274 a year to park in the Duke section of the parking lot.

So its unclear to me how the owner has a say in whether I stay or go. I'm guessing the situation is more complex than what I make it out to be, but this is all I know as of yet. More to come...

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Yesterday I received an email from the director of the liberal studies department--the department that I am enrolled in.


I have a troubling issue to raise with you that reached me late this afternoon through the Graduate School. Duke has received a request from the property manager of the ******** Apartments -- who owns the parking lot where you are parked -- that you move your van. She has received complaints from tenants of ********* Apartments.

Please phone me any time up to 9PM and certainly over the weekend. As my computer is down at the moment, I will be unable, after I leave the office, to receive your email.

My home phone # is ***-****.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Best, *****"

I'll hold off issuing comments until I know more, but I'd like to say that I hold my director in the highest regard. She's been supportive of me since I got here and she's always been in my corner. So if there's a "bad guy" to this story, it's certainly not her. I should also say that I am legally parked and pay $274 a year for my parking permit. And--because I've lived as quietly and unostentatiously as a monk in a monastery for almost two years in that parking lot--I have no idea why me and my van are drawing complaints all of a sudden.

More to come as I learn more...