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The debt discipline

Duke students will soon be banned from living in their vehicles. Yes, you heard me right. While this newly proposed parking regulation may be of no consequence to you, it is to me. That’s because I’ve been living in my van at Duke for almost two years now.

Before I go on, let me make a frank admission: I have a nasty man-crush on Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century ascetic and author of “Walden”—his book about his two years spent in a tiny, rustic, woodland shack. I loved Thoreau because he helped me realize that—when it came to my student debt—the more money I’d borrowed, the more freedom I’d surrendered. He also made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

But I was never really alone. Everyone I’ve met at Duke—students, professors and administrators alike—have “gotten” my van experiment, even if it’s something that they’d never want to do.

Everyone hates debt, but it turns out that not everyone is enchanted with the idea of living next to someone dwelling in his large, creepy van. This became clear when I got an e-mail informing me that a tenant in the Erwin apartments next to the Mill Lot, where I was parked, was “uncomfortable” with my van. Soon after, I was ordered to leave.

I decided to take a stand. If it came down to it, I’d stand erect in front of the tow truck, Tiananmen Square-style. But it didn’t work out this way. I won’t bore you with the details, but it turns out that Duke doesn’t even own the Mill Lot. When the real owner learned that I was living there, a dean was contacted and lawyers got involved. Everyone wanted me out.

Duke decided to give me a new lot so long as I signed a contract stating that I wouldn’t sue, and that I wouldn’t live in the lot after my graduation. Fair enough, I thought.

All good? For me—yes. For all other would-be vandwellers—no. The issue provoked Duke to reconsider its parking policy, and administrators are now, I’ve been told, in the middle of creating a rule that will outlaw all students from living in their vehicles.

Believe me: I realize that this new rule will affect almost no one, but I decided to write this column because this decision is reflective of many of Duke’s policies.

It’s a fact of life that universities today are run like businesses. And Duke is no exception. Universities have Mr. Potato-Headed themselves with the bodies of bureaucracies and the souls of corporations. And when one of these grotesquely misshapen reconfigurations looks at itself in the mirror—if it still can—it can’t help but realize that it hardly resembles what it once was.

Any self-respecting university would encourage students to explore new ways of thinking and living; it would promote activities that challenged the status quo; and it would support those who wished to stay out of debt.

This May, countrywide, 67 percent of college graduates will leave with an average debt of $23,000. Graduate and professional students will walk off commencement stages shouldering heavy, six-digit debts that many will carry for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve been born into some bizarro parallel universe—one where people spend $75 on a new pair of pants with holes in it; where universities are for-profit factories; and where bright, imaginative and ambitious young people are turned into cubicle-encased, lifelong loan drones.

Although there are countless factors that contribute to our nation’s debt culture, one of them is the university. The “university experience” teaches us that debt is not something to be avoided, but that it’s normal, expected and “how things are done.” To buy something, it teaches us to swipe our card and worry about the bill later. Policies like compulsory housing and ridiculously priced dining plans force students to go deeply into debt. And—most tragically—the university experience will influence how we think about and handle money for the rest of our lives. Duke does not teach us to save, live frugally or work our way through college—lessons that we could benefit from for the rest of our lives. Duke, rather, teaches us how to be debtors.

I can say this after two years of living in my van: There’s another way. While living in a vehicle isn’t for everybody, there are cheaper alternatives, and ways to leave school—maybe not debt-free—but with a lighter load.

Duke, thankfully, has made me an exception to their new rule, and—barring a tornado—I will graduate free of debt. But others, unfortunately, will no longer have the option to live as frugally as I have.

However, for those who wish to, let me say that there’s no better teacher than Thoreau. While I found inspiration in his “Walden,” I think future vandwellers might find more useful advice in his other famous work, “Civil Disobedience.”

Ken Ilgunas is a second-year graduate student. This is the final part of a two part series on the author’s experiences living in his van and attempting to graduate debt-free. Read part one here.

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