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  • Ken Ilgunas


(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)


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