Student loans have been predicted to become America’s next mortgage loan crisis. With debt levels tripling over the last eight years, U.S. students are reconsidering how much of their adult lives they are willing to sacrifice to loan repayments. For Ken Ilgunas the answer was “very few.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in english and history, Ilgunas felt haunted by the $32,000 he owed. The fight to whittle it down took him across America, working jobs as a wilderness guide, a cook at a roadside truck stop in Alaska and a reconstruction worker in post-Katrina Mississippi. When he applies to graduate school and is admitted to Duke, however, the admission comes with the threat of racking up several more tens of thousands in education costs. So Ilgunas chooses the savings of making his home in a van for the school year to the comforts of residence and its food halls and chronicled the experience in his new book, Walden on Wheels.
Ironically, in running away from the yoke of his debt, Ilgunas found freedom – that of the road and ultimately, of higher education. His second book is about his walk from Alberta across America, down to the Gulf Coast, tracing the path of the proposed Keystone pipeline.
Q: There are many layers in the book: travelling across America, the perils of hitchhiking, the economics of recession. It’s not the usual gap year experience.
Ilgunas: One of the benefits of going to work at working camps and menial jobs, is that you get to rub elbows with members of other demographics that you would not if you’re growing up in middle-class suburbia, not getting much exposure to other parts of society. I profited considerably from hitchhiking, from getting the other side of America.
Do you feel you should be fighting debt and the education system instead of half dropping out and then going back?
I’m not a policy expert, I understand things from an individual level. Tuition is extraordinarily high in America and people are living with unprecedented debt levels. Something needs to happen on a national level. ... In public state universities, fees are $8500 a year. When you factor in average grants, they are about $5500. So you’re left with about $3000, which most people can pay, who want to get an education. [Private] schools have extraordinary tuition rates because of consumption habits. They put in cafés and gyms because they have students who are wiling to pay for these things.
A lot of your co-workers in Mississippi, cleaning up after Katrina, are not there for the adventure. They are there for the pay or they’re getting away from their lives. Where did you get the ability to transcend expectations?
Lots of people are good at different things, like being a good welder. The only thing I’m good at is being introspective and writing about it. Plus, I read a ton of books when I was 19 or 20, that makes you dream big, big dreams – those books contributed to my outlandish decisions.
The Endurance, about the Shackleton expedition. Walden, of course. One of the first was A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins – that captured my imagination. He does it when he’s 18 or 19 .
Where are you now? What are you doing there?
A farm in north Carolina, west of Salem. It’s an unusual arrangement, a farmer needed help with his farm and I’m his groundskeeper. Sometimes life requires unconventional thinking; being a writer, it’s hard to make rent and pay the bills. And I’m working on my 2nd book, trespassing across America.
Q: You don’t have a single job that requires a college degree until you start tutoring while at Duke. But you did them anyway. Any advice for students on jobs?
A: Being a fast-food cook at a truck stop in Alaska I can appreciate why people would not want to go and do menial labour. It’s not forever; there’s much to learn by having to take jobs you don’t want to take. At the very least, we understand what we don’t want to do, which is really valuable.
I think you should think about your debt and paying it back in a different way. Financial experts say 8 to 10 per cent of your income should go to paying back. I think you should be putting 100 per cent of your income toward debt. Reframe the way you think of your debt as a life and death situation. What would you would do then? Dumpster dive, live in a van. You should become obsessive. You gotta despise it, hate it, anthropomorphize it.
Simona Chiose is Education Editor, you can follow her on twitter.