this land-1.jpg

press to zoom

press to zoom

press to zoom

press to zoom
1/9

Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Mar 6


(That’s a dead mosquito near the side of my mouth.)


I started this blog in January 2009 to share my experiences as a grad student in Duke University’s Liberal Studies Department. Before I enrolled in the program, I had just finished paying off $32,000 in undergraduate debt. To prevent myself from going into debt again, I pledged not to take out loans or borrow money. I made it my goal to graduate debt-free. So, I bought a van.

During my first year of vandwelling, I kept the van a secret on campus because I worried that campus administration would rescind my parking permit if they found out that some dude was living in one of their lots. Tired of living in secret, in December 2009, the day after my second semester ended, I published an article in Salon that I’d written in my Travel Writing class. In so doing, I revealed my secret to the country at large, resulting in a brief “fifteen minutes of fame.” In May 2011, after more than two years of living in the van, I graduated debt-free, with a little over $1,000 to my name. Currently, I’m writing a book about my experiences.

This blog is also a forum for me to share stories about my past. To pay off my undergraduate debt, I embarked on a continent-wide working tour for two-and-a-half years on which I saved almost every dime I made. I conducted my vandwelling experiment, not just because I wanted to avoid accruing another debt, but because I thought I’d make something of the many lessons I learned on the road.

On that journey, I lived in Coldfoot, Alaska for a year as a tour guide; I hitchhiked 7,500 miles back and forth across the continent; I went on an 18th century voyage across Ontario, Canada; I lived in a ghetto in Gulfport, Mississippi; and I got a job as a backcountry ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I learned a lot on that journey, and I suppose those lessons are a part of these essays. It was a transformative journey, changing my values and beliefs about wealth, poverty, and everything in between in wildly unexpected ways. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that it takes a lot more than buying a van to become a vandweller.

Happy trails,

Ken Ilgunas

You can contact me at: spartanstudent (at) gmail.com

Updated: Mar 9



“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.” –Theodore Roosevelt


“Let the world change you, and you can change the world.” -Tagline for The Motorcycle Diaries

Thanks to all those who chose to support this scholarship (NOW CLOSED).


Name: The “Dare Mighty Things” Scholarship

Amount: $1,000

Deadline: Jan 31, 2011 [Deadline has passed.] Number of awards: 1

Who can apply? Undergraduate students of all majors in their junior and senior years are encouraged to apply. Must be an American citizen enrolled in an American institution. (We will make exceptions on a case by case basis.)

What is the award for? To support students who wish to embark on adventures UNRELATED to their schoolwork and careers.

Mission– The Dare Mighty Things Scholarship Foundation believes the world is one big classroom. We want to encourage graduates to create their own “curriculum” by pursing dreams unrelated to college and careers. We envision a world comprised of principled, deliberative, physically vigorous and creative individuals uniquely shaped by their scholarly and worldly educations.


Scholarship Description– The Dare Mighty Things Scholarship is for students with dreams. The bigger, the badder, the bolder the dream—the better. The dream can be of a personal nature (train-hopping across the country) or of a social nature (teaching school children about organic farming). Whatever the dream, it must be of your own making. If your dream—to others—seems impractical, unfeasible, eccentric, or crazy, you are in the right place.


Because of sobering financial realities, many students are forced to compromise their ideals and postpone dreams. We don’t want you to sell out; we want you to live the life you’ve imagined. We want students who wish to spend their post-graduate years growing, developing, and enjoying their lives outside of classroom walls. We hope that you’ll come back from your journey enriched from your experiences and eager to share it with others. You and the world will be the better for it.


Requirements– Undergraduate students of all majors in their junior and senior years are encouraged to apply. Must be an American citizen student enrolled at an American institution. (We will make exceptions on a case by case basis.)


Please email a personal photo, essay, and questionnaire (details of which can all be found below) to DareMightyThingsScholarship (at) gmail.com by 8 a.m., January 31st 2011. The winner will be decided soon after.


Disclaimer: The scholarship was created on the blog, “The Spartan Student” (spartanstudent.blogspot.com). The winner will have his/her essay and picture posted on the blog. (Applicants may request not to have certain personal information revealed.)


Disclaimer 2: The author of the blog and creator of the scholarship holds the right to haunt you for the rest of your life if you let your dream go unrealized.

Disclaimer 3: The winner is strongly encouraged to write a follow-up essay/travel narrative, or to provide some other artistic media (photos, video, poetry, etc) to be viewed on the blog.

Application– (Please paste the questions and your answers to the following questions onto a Word document.)

  • Name:

  • Date of birth:

  • Are you a junior, senior, or other (ex: second-year senior)?

  • What is your current school?

  • What other higher learning institutions have you attended?

  • What month and year do you intend to graduate?

  • What is your major? Why did you choose it? How will you “use” it? (Please limit response to no more than two paragraphs.)

  • How much student debt will you graduate with?

  • When do you intend to pursue the dream that you’ve described in your essay? How will the money awarded help you carry it out? (Please limit response to no more than two paragraphs.)

  • Please provide two references, your relation with them (professors, employers, and relatives are acceptable), as well as their email addresses and phone numbers. (We do not desire actual letters of recommendation; contact information will suffice.)

Essay question– Please describe the dream you intend to pursue after graduation (or during your studies). Write the essay in whatever way you wish, but it would be helpful to explain why you have this dream, what you expect to gain from it, etc. Six words of advice: Don’t be afraid to be passionate. The essay should be 2-3 pages long. (12-point font, Times New Roman, double-spaced.)

You have a good chance if… 1. your dream is bold and of your own creation. Working on Wall Street for a hedge fund is certainly a “worldly experience,” but it’s not the type that we wish to support. We encourage dreams that fall outside the parameters of “the system.” These are the types of journeys we wish to help fund: a cycling tour through South America, a backpacking trip through Africa, a road trip to Alaska, the creation of your own planet-saving non-profit organization, etc. If it’s your dream to “hunt and kill elephant poachers, extract their teeth postmortem and display them as a warning to ivory dealers,” then you’re the person we’re looking for. While we don’t expect something so extreme, the bolder your dream is, the better the chance you have.


2. you plan on embarking on your journey SOON. We want to reward those who donated and made this scholarship possible with evidence that their money has been put to good use. In other words, we want you to embark on your journey and tell us about it in a reasonable amount of time. This summer would be great. If you plan on doing it ten years from now, then please–if this scholarship is still around–wait nine years to apply.


Send all inquiries and materials to: (now closed)