• Columbia graduate student Gerardo Rios Garcia lives in a van for financial security and adventure.
  • He drove his van from Mexico to NYC and sleeps in it while balancing school and multiple jobs.
  • Although he says it's challenging and can be scary, he saves $2,000 a month and doesn't have loans.

I'm a 26-year-old graduate student at Columbia University and an intern at the United Nations who lives in a vintage Volkswagen van in Manhattan. I made this choice driven by a goal for future financial security and a thirst for adventure.

My journey into van life began when I was a kid, listening to my grandpa's stories about road trips around Mexico and the US. During my junior year of college that same van my grandpa had driven was passed down to me.

Though it was no longer in the best condition — plagued with rust, brake issues, electrical malfunctions, and motor problems — I decided to renovate it.

I got into Columbia University for graduate school, and my van was the most affordable and fun way to go

After completing my undergrad degree in business, I knew I wanted to continue my studies. I had no idea where to go, other than it had to be in North America, so I could take my van with me. I also wanted to avoid taking out loans or asking my family for financial support.

I applied and was accepted to Columbia University's MS in sustainability management program. After working full time in consulting in Mexico for two years, saving as much as possible, and selling or donating everything that wouldn't fit into my van, I set out to drive to my graduate program.

After crossing the border in Arizona, I had 2,500 miles and 10 states to cover. I experienced engine issues in Albuquerque, Kansas City, and Indianapolis, and I had to tow the van with a U-Haul at one point. Still, I made it to NYC on a Sunday morning and had orientation on Monday. My Volkswagen van became my home in September.

I wanted a lifestyle that allowed me to focus on my studies and work to secure a good professional standing while living life to the fullest and gaining as many new experiences as possible. The van was a solution that was both economically viable and incredibly liberating.

Living in a van in Manhattan is hard, scary, and stressful

At just over 46 square feet, my van poses significant challenges. I must constantly find free street parking, deal with extreme temperatures, and stay aware of my surroundings. I use the WiFi at coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, or the gym. I also typically shower at the gym.

I have a mini fridge, an electric stove powered by a solar panel, and basic cooking utensils, so I cook sometimes. I also frequent diners, Columbia's dining halls, and coffee shops for meals.

I have friends over from time to time, but because the space is small, it's not something I do very often. My mom visited me a few months ago when the weather was nice for a week, and she stayed with me in the van.

I'm more involved in my community

A small living space has encouraged me to become more engaged in my community and vastly increased my productivity. Balancing three part-time jobs — a teaching assistant position, a research assistant role, and my internship at the UN — while joining student clubs, volunteering, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA has been feasible because I don't feel the need to always be at home.

I study in the van when the weather permits, watch movies, and take naps. During the coldest months of winter and hottest parts of summer, I mainly just sleep in it.

My unconventional lifestyle has become a talking point. Colleagues and professors find my story intriguing. In the professional world, I've encountered a range of reactions, from admiration and curiosity to skepticism and judgment. These interactions have taught me valuable lessons in communication, resilience, and growth.

I've learned how to prioritize what's truly important

I now know that I want a minimalist lifestyle focused on my goals and passions, free from the distractions of excessive materialism.

Financial independence is another significant benefit of my van life. I save around $2,000 each month and avoid student loans. This freedom gives me the cushion to explore the culinary richness of NYC, play sports, attend events, and do other activities that I wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

Van life has been an incredible journey of self-discovery and growth

Van life has shown me there are endless possibilities when you choose to live authentically and embrace the unknown, but the uncertainty is the biggest challenge of this lifestyle. Not having a comfortable place to retreat and dealing with added stress can be challenging.

Materially, there's limited space, and being essentially homeless can be taxing on relationships. There's also the constant concern of potential break-ins and mechanical issues. However, I truly believe living in a van has positively impacted my professional and academic life.

I want my story to be a reminder that there are many ways to live and thrive. I like to think that my van, parked amid the urban chaos, stands as a symbol of resilience, creativity, and the enduring human spirit.

I finish my courses in December and plan to stay in the van until then. I don't intend to live in my van for an extended period after finishing school, but I haven't decided on my next steps. I'm open to exploring different opportunities and locations.

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2024-06-24T09:07:52Z dg43tfdfdgfd