Book Review: Walden on Wheels by Ken IlgunasI first heard of Ken Ilgunas's vandwelling experience from an online news article, and the basic premise sent me running to the library website to put his book on hold. For those not familiar with it: Ilgunas spent over a year living in his van in one of the parking lots of Duke University in order to complete his post-graduate degree debt free.This in itself is an amazing story, but it's only part of his story.
After graduating from the University at Buffalo, Ilgunas was left with a mountain of debt and few job prospects beyond his part time work at Home Depot . He eventually landed work in Coldfoot, Alaska, home of "The Farthest North Truck Stop". Living an austere lifestyle, working whatever jobs were offered to him, (Including dishwasher, cleaner, garbage burning, trail guide, and night cook ) and hitchhiking back to his home in New York, Ilgunas managed to pay off $32,000 in debt in roughly 4 1/2 years. Along the way he also spent time as a voyageur, did clean up work in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, and fell in love. When Ilgunas decided to seek a Master's degree and was accepted to Duke University, his determination not to go back into debt led him to purchase a Ford Econoline van and live in it while studying for his degree and working almost full time as a tutor.
This is an important book that asks important questions. We always here that debt for college is "good debt", so we rarely question if students actually NEED to go into debt to get an education. We don't question that young adults, most still teenagers, are given insanely large loans without being told of the implications of that debt. We are trained not to think of the fallout from our consumer lifestyle, not to wonder if the jobs we take to support that life (while paying off exorbitant loans!) are ethical, and to not seek an authentic life.
Igunas's story is that of questioning those "American" values, of seeking an authentic life on the road, in the wilds of Alaska, and on the water...and in the process not only paying off his debt in an unprecedented time frame, but discovering how little a person really needs.
I've just said this is an important book, and I think it's important enough that I will require my 9th grader to read it this year (and strongly urge my 11th grader/first year college student to do so, also). I would say this book should be read by ALL kids in 9th or 10th grade. I'll note that there are language and a couple of situations some would object to kids that age reading about; however, by the time a kid turns into an adult, it's almost too late. They will already be on the path toward high debt and a job that may not feed their soul, may not relate to their degree at all, and might not even pay well to boot. Ilgunas's experience is proof a person can pursue an education, a debt free life, and satisfying work- and not have to choose between them.
You may be wishing to ask me: "You know, Jenna, it's really easy to admire this in someone else's kid, but what about yours? What if your kid wanted to work in the wilds of Alaska? What if your kid wanted to hitchhike to New York, or live in a van while going to college?"
And here's the truth: I would admire them. I would want them to be careful, but I would encourage them all the same. It's risky, but not as risky as people have convinced themselves, and much less risky than living a stale life, chained to a job they hate to they can pay off their mountain of debt.
You can read Ken Ilgunas's blog here: it's well worth the read.