UMaine student who slept in car to save money will graduate same weekend as mother, sister

Posted May 10, 2014, at 5:46 a.m.
Last modified May 10, 2014, at 6:39 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Josiah Corbin spent a lot of weeknights over the past four years sleeping in his car in a Walmart parking lot.

Thanks in part to his routine, the 23-year-old will graduate from the University of Maine with a biology degree, and without debt, on Saturday.

Corbin, a fifth-year student who took his last exam Thursday, got a work-study job in his second year of school that kept him on campus late — sometimes past midnight. His family’s Dover-Foxcroft home is about an hour drive from the UMaine campus. Once he decided on a science major, he found many of his required classes were only available at 8 a.m., which meant very little sleep, especially when he had to factor in drive time and studying.

Corbin didn’t get as much financial aid as he hoped and didn’t want to incur student debt over his next four years of school. So he made an unusual decision — hunker down in the car.

He started out sleeping in a parking lot near Alfond Arena on campus, curling up in his car, a rusted-out 1987 Toyota Corolla. By pulling out his front passenger’s seat, he was able to lay down a small “mattress,” which isn’t much more than a body pillow. By wrapping up in a couple of sleeping bags, he was able to make himself “relatively cozy.”

After a few weeks in a UMaine parking lot, police found Corbin in his car late one night and told him he couldn’t sleep in his vehicle there. So Corbin relocated to Walmart in Bangor, which has a relatively steady population of overnight sleepers, according to Corbin. Some come in recreational vehicles, others in their cars. A surprising number of them, especially in warmer months, are from Canada, he said.

Walmart policy allows recreational vehicles to park in its lots as space allows, but the policy doesn’t say anything about people sleeping in cars. Walmart says on its website that sleepover policies and regulations largely are up to individual stores and local laws. Corbin said no one from Walmart ever bothered him about sleeping there overnight in his car.

Corbin estimates he probably saved about $8,000 per year avoiding room-and-board costs, avoiding a meal plan and cutting down his commute. That works out to $32,000 through the course of his college career, most of which he would have needed loans to cover.

Last year, Corbin had to scrap his trusty Toyota because of rust and engine problems in favor of something newer.

“The Corolla might have been more comfortable,” Corbin said Thursday, standing outside his new ride — a later model Ford Focus — in the Bangor Walmart parking lot he has called home a few nights each school week for the past several years.

In the Focus, Corbin lowers the back seats, lays down his mattress and sleeping bags, and sleeps with his lower half in the trunk and upper half in the back seat.

He keeps a duffle bag with a week or two’s worth of clothes in the car and uses a power inverter to run his laptop, which he uses to study and keep entertained. He showers at the University of Maine’s fitness center and kills time between classes in the library on campus.

He says he has lived mostly on fast food and trips to Walmart’s prepared food section.

On nights when Corbin didn’t have classes early the next morning, he sometimes drove back to Dover-Foxcroft. On other occasions, he crashed on a friend’s couch to get a break from the parking lot. He spent his breaks from school at home.

What about Maine’s brutal winters?

Corbin is an Eagle Scout, and said he has done his share of winter camping. He has a pair of quality sleeping bags and drapes a third over himself for good measure. Despite cracking windows so he can get air, he still stays pretty warm inside the car, even in subzero temperatures.

“The worst part is putting on frozen pants in the morning,” he said.

This weekend will be a busy one for the Corbin family, as Josiah, his younger sister and his mother each will graduate from their respective schools.

Katrina Corbin, 21, will graduate from Husson University with a bachelor’s degree. Rita Corbin, 60, is poised to get her associate degree from Eastern Maine Community College. Both were in nursing programs.

The family home is an unfinished log cabin in Dover-Foxcroft that Rita settled into in 1976. The Corbins are homesteaders of sorts, considering themselves part of the back-to-the-land movement.

The family patriarch, George Corbin, retired last year and has been staying in Dover-Foxcroft maintaining the homestead weekdays while the others have been away at school.

While attending school, Rita Corbin has been renting a room in Bangor.

“That commute is two hours of studying time lost,” Rita said.

Katrina got a better financial aid package than her brother and has been living in Husson dorms. She says she has accrued about $10,000 in loans during her time in college. Asked whether she regrets not commuting or following in her brother’s footsteps by living in her car to avoid debt, Katrina responded “No way in heck.”

Josiah said that he is looking for a job as an EMT for the summer while he applies to a pre-med program. He’ll be moving back to Dover-Foxcroft with his family now that school is over.

“It will be nice to sleep in a real bed every night again,” he said.