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Duke student's Spartan route: living in van on campus

A Duke University graduate student from Niagara Falls has no need for electricity, plumbing and other amenities found in conventional campus housing.

Instead, Ken Ilgunas gets dressed, eats and sleeps in a retrofitted 1994 Ford Econoline van that sits, rent-free, in a school parking lot.

"I always just wanted to see if I could do it," Ilgunas said in an interview. "I wanted to test my limits." The 26-year-old University at Buffalo graduate has lived in the van in Durham, N.C., for the past year, partly to avoid running up student loan debt.

Ilgunas kept his unusual living arrangement a secret until he wrote an essay that ran on the online news site Salon - and made him Duke's best-known liberal studies grad student.

"I do find it inspiring. He makes me want to live a better life," said Christina Askounis, a lecturer at Duke who urged a contact at Salon to publish the essay that Ilgunas wrote for her travel-writing class.

The van experiment, which Duke isn't shutting down, is just the latest adventure for Ilgunas. He has worked as a ranger at a national park inside the Arctic Circle, hitchhiked from Alaska to Niagara Falls and paddled around Ontario in a birch-bark canoe.

He graduated from Buffalo in 2006 with $32,000 in debt, mainly because he spent his first year at Alfred University, a private school. He said he hated having the loans hanging over him for 2 1/2 years, and he thinks Americans are too quick to borrow and ring up debt for no good reason.

By the fall of 2008, thanks to his Spartan lifestyle and jobs that included a stint with AmeriCorps in Mississippi, Ilgunas had paid off his last student loan.

He started grad school at Duke last January and, wanting to avoid more debt, decided to test his idea of living in a van on the campus. Grants partly pay his Duke tuition, and money from part-time and summer jobs does the rest.

He found the Ford Econoline for sale on Craigslist for $1,500.

When his mother found out about his plans, she begged him to let her pay for an apartment or dorm room, but he declined.

He said he didn't mind the inconveniences of having no toilet or shower, since he uses those at a campus gym.

He keeps close track of his expenses, calculating weekly spending on gas, food and supplies. He bought just two beers, costing $5.78, the first semester.

He lived for the most part on spaghetti stew, rice and beans and granola, with powdered milk. He initially didn't eat as much as he should have.

"I lost five pounds my first week. I could see my ribs," said Ilgunas, who cooked on a propane stove.

When asked if living in a van hurts his dating life, he said, "Girls like interesting guys," but declined to elaborate. Ilgunas led a solitary existence, at first, because he felt he couldn't confide in anyone.

"It was lonely the first semester. That was a huge downside to my experiment," he said. "Since then, I've been giving tours." Readers of his Salon essay had mixed opinions about his choices, with some seeing him as a modern-day Thoreau and others saying they think he is crazy.

"I think all of us, deep down, we really want to be that person," Askounis said. "I think it really pains him to see people who are really stuck, or feel that they're stuck" in their lives.

"A lot of people said, 'I wish I could do what you did,' " Ilgunas said. "And I always thought to myself, 'Why can't you?' "

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