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  • Ken Ilgunas

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


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