“Ken, I have a troubling issue to raise with you.”


I got this message about a month ago from my program director. I didn’t need to read on to know what it was about. It probably had something to do with the fact that – for almost two years – I’d been living in my van at Duke.

Before I go on, let me address and respond to some clichés: No – for the millionth time – my van is not “down by the river”; no, I haven’t abducted anyone yet; and no, my van – I promise you – is certainly not a rockin’ (but please don’t come a knockin’ – that would really freak me out).

In Jan. 2009, I began my studies in the graduate liberal studies department. When I arrived, all I had was a suitcase full of clothes, a backpack full of camping gear and $4,000 in the bank. Somehow I’d have to stretch my money out that first semester to cover tuition, transportation, a home, food, etc.

I could have taken out loans like any normal person, but I was determined not to. That’s because – just months before – I’d finished paying off my $32,000 undergraduate student debt.

To pay it off, I worked almost nonstop for two and a half years. I took a series of odd jobs, shoveling away, scoop by scoop, the mountain of money in front of me that threatened to – if I didn’t do something radical about it – cast its shadow over me for the rest of my life.

I saved everything, bought nothing and put each paycheck toward my debt. For those two and a half years, my monthly bills more or less ruled my life. I told myself that if I was ever lucky enough to enroll in school again, I’d do things a bit differently.

So when I got accepted to Duke, I made it my goal to graduate debt-free.

I refused to take out loans. I pledged not to borrow. I’d eat cheap, find a part-time job, and buy a van – a 1994 Ford Econoline for $1,500 – so I didn’t have to pay apartment rent.

I wasn’t afraid of cold nights or the summer heat. Nor was I afraid of car theft or going hungry. I was, though, deathly afraid of campus security. I figured if Duke found out, I’d get kicked out of my parking lot, and be forced to go back into debt.

Before I applied to Duke, I looked over the campus parking regulations to see if I’d be breaking any laws. The rulebook didn’t address the issue, but just to be safe I decided to keep it a secret.

On my first day, I went to the parking services office, wrote in a fake address on the registration form, and bought a parking permit. Like many first-year grad students, I was exiled to the Mill Lot on Ninth Street, next to the Erwin Apartments.

It took me a while to get the hang of vandwelling. I had nowhere to wash my dishes, the nearest public bathroom was a quarter-mile away and I constantly worried if I carried to class the musty, musky, “my-eyes-are-starting-to-water” odors that resided with me in the van.

But over time, the van grew on me. Each morning, I was awakened by cheerful birdsong, I found a flat spot, and I got to know my neighborhood well. Plus, I was able to keep it a secret from everyone.

I took showers at Brodie, got electricity and Wi-Fi at Lilly, and knew what garbage bins to scour for day-old food. I got my food bill down to $4.34 a day, and my expenses down to $103 a week (not including tuition).

For the first year, I kept the van a secret from everyone. But living in hiding was taking its toll. When I couldn’t take the loneliness anymore, I revealed my secret in grand form by publishing an article about my experiment on the webzine, Salon. I had no idea how Duke would respond, but was delighted that they didn’t seem to care.

I’ve grown so used to the discomforts of vandwelling that they’re no longer discomforts. Nor is frugality a novelty or a challenge anymore, but a way of life. As I approach my graduation this May, I know that I’ll be leaving with – in addition to my degree – another sort of education – an education just as valuable as the one I got inside classroom walls.

Sometimes I look back on that first year and laugh when I think about how paranoid I was. I should have known that a university would never do anything to prevent a student from saving money or exploring new ways of living.

This is why I was so surprised when I got an email about a “troubling issue.” Two weeks later, I was kicked out of the Mill Lot and vandwelling at Duke would never be the same.

Ken Vandwelling is a second-year graduate student. This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II will print in tomorrow’s edition.


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