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The journey within

UB alumnus uses his experiences to encourage a new outlook on opportunities

The Spectrum

In the past four years, Ken Ilgunas has lived nearly two years in a 1994 Ford Econoline van and walked 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Texas.

The UB alumnus has made a name for himself as an eccentric journeyman. Ilgunas is speaking Monday at 3 p.m. in 120 Clemens Hall about his hiking trip and on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in 17 Norton Hall about his experience living in a van. He hopes his talks will inspire students to have a different outlook on their various opportunities.

"I think any bizarre, unconventional experiment makes us think differently about our lives," said Ilgunas, who double majored in English and history at UB. "I hope [my story] encourages people to take their own unconventional paths wherever that may lead them."

Although it was never his intention, his story has illuminated two pressing issues in the media: the increasing student debt and the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

Walden on Wheels

After being accepted to Duke University for a liberal arts graduate program in 2009, Ilgunas had one goal in mind: graduating without any debt. He left UB in 2007 with $32,000 debt and had recently paid it all off by working as a tour guide and cook in Alaska.

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas decided to create his own Walden Pond experience.

His solution to avoiding the cost of room and board? To live in a van, which he purchased specifically for that purpose. He lived there for a year and a half of his two-year stay at Duke. Initially, all of his expenses were drawn from the $4,000 he had saved, a $1,600 tax return and odd jobs he would complete - including getting repeatedly zapped by electrodes as a "student participant" in various studies on campus.

He decided to embark on this journey because it was a practical way of avoiding the cost of rent. He called it an adventure and an experiment. It allowed him to examine his life and helped him figure out what he wanted and needed out of it.

"I saw my Duke education as two different educations: one in the classroom and the other in the van," he said. "I'm not sure which, in the long run, will be the more valuable of them."

Pipe Dreams

After hitchhiking all the way from Denver, Colo., to Alberta, Ilgunas began his 1,700-mile walk on Sept. 27, 2012.

He followed the path of the controversial, would-be Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline is a proposed idea to bring crude oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Though proponents of the pipeline say it will create jobs and help energy independence, opponents say it could be costly to the environment.

Ilgunas, who opposes the construction of the pipeline, said he decided to take the hike because he wanted another adventure and saw the pipeline as an "unusual place in American-environmental history."

The trip lasted about four and half months. What started out as a hike without a defined goal became a self-reflecting experience for Ilgunas.

"I thought of it as a journey," Ilgunas said. "A journey can't be a journey without the element of the unknown. I wanted to embrace that spirit and let the journey transform me."

Ilgunas said having the talks is a way to give back to the university he attended. He plans to have a signing of his book Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom after both events.

He isn't trying to convince students to buy an Econoline van. He isn't trying to encourage students to hike over 1,000 miles either. He wants students to understand that there are ways to overcome their problems, and sometimes the extreme solution may be the most uplifting and beneficial method.


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