Without meaning to, I have just completed reading two books back-to-back which both contain the central theme of dealing with staggering student loan debt. I do not subscribe to “coincidence”; I believe that everything happens for a reason, so now I am curious as to why student loan debt has appeared on my radar.
The first book, “The Rooster Bar” by John Grisham, was disappointing. Three third year law students, emboldened by the rantings of a fellow student who takes his life, decide to drop out of the final semester of law school at a low rate for-profit law school and buck the system. “Justified” by the fact that they have been “suckered” into a poor law school and suffocating student debt, they bilk the system that used them, commit multiple felonies and make a huge sum of cash, with which they abscond to another country and live happily ever after. Since those high paying jobs they were practically promised aren’t panning out, why not, right?
Where is their sense of personal responsibility in all of this? No one made them go to law school or take out loans. Disappointing.
Fortunately, it is a novel, and the second book, “Walden on Wheels,” is a memoir. In his debut book, Ken Ilgunas recounts his tale of blindly following the American masses, going to college on student loans. After one year in a private college, he is horrified by how much debt will await him after college, so he moves back home with his parents and attends the University of Buffalo as a commuter student and works part time at the Home Depot. He views the summer before his final year of college as his last free summer. “If I spent it working at the Home Depot, I’d be declining some rare gift.” At the very last minute, he decides to follow his heart’s desire and work in Alaska. Having applied late for seasonal jobs, the only one he can find is working as a lodge cleaner at a truck stop/summer tourist stop in Coldfoot, Alaska, located inside the Artic Circle. The high point of his summer is a 28 hour hike, climbing up and back down Blue Cloud Mountain, a feat that changes his life perspective. “Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given it everything you have.”
He returns to UB and graduates with majors in History and English, and with student loan debt of $32,000.
His inability to secure a job after college gives him time to think about the next steps in the American Way of Life: get a job, work fifty weeks a year, take years to pay off the student loans, while adding car loans and a mortgage. To which Ken says, “No, thank you.”
Instead, he returns to Alaska for the summer, working again at Coldfoot, but this time as a raft and tour guide. When a position comes open to stay over the winter and work as a line cook for the truck stop, he takes it. He whiles away his off time reading, discovering “Walden” by Thoreau, underlining entire pages and writing notes in the margins. He becomes a proselyte, adhering to Thoreau’s principle of living “simply and wisely.” Because room and board were included with the job, in one year he paid off $16,000 in debt, while making only $9 an hour, plus overtime.
Encouraged, Ken decides that yes, he can live adventurously, albeit frugally, AND pay off his student loan debt. He hitchhikes across the country, spends several months as a voyageur canoeing across Canada, works through Americorps in Mississippi. He returns each summer to Alaska, improving his employment until he lands a “real job” as a seasonal ranger at Gates of the Artic National Park and Preserve making $20 an hour. Add on a fall seasonal job with UPS, and by December 2009 he pays off his student loan debt.
Then he decides to go to graduate school, and he surprises himself by being accepted into a graduate liberal studies program at Duke University.
Determined not to incur more debt, he applies his lessons learned in Thoreau-ian austerity and buys an old Ford Econoline van to serve as his living quarters, his “Walden on Wheels.” By becoming a vandweller, working a variety of part time jobs during the school year, and returning to the park ranger position in the summers, he not only pays his own way, he graduates with $1300 in his pocket.
Ken’s memoir is a stirring reminder that there is more than one American Dream; that it is possible to live intentionally, to live on very little, and still live a rich life.