In 2004, Steve Stanzak was a sophomore at NYU. He moved about the world much like we all do—classes in Silver, purple lanyard in tow, peering up at the sky before being weathered by New York to look at the ground. This story would be quite unoriginal if Stanzak had not the kind of unrelenting drive it takes to abandon ‘normal’ life for an education.
But he did.
For eight months, Stanzak took up residence at Bobst library. He had neither a bed nor box to call home. There, Stanzak chronicled life on a blog entitled Homeless at NYU and shattered the record for most consecutive nights spent in the library. It was a trying experience, but one that has etched the title “Bobst Boy” in the hearts of vagabond romantics and true academics alike.
Here, we touch base with the man who was immortalized in NYU history, when he was anything but just a boy.
For students who don’t know about your story, could you tell us all about what living in Bobst was like?
What I remember most about living in Bobst, even now, was the intense boredom and loneliness of the place. It was incredibly isolating to live in a place meant for work, to publicly perform actions meant to be private. I tried to find times and places to shave, brush my teeth, and wash my hair that were isolated from people, but, even after living in Bobst for months, I still felt incredibly embarrassed when someone would walk in the bathroom when I was grooming. I still wonder what they thought about me when they saw me there, with my head lathered up in a sink. I remember trying to pass off these experiences as funny tidbits for a future novel, or as the glamorous life of a Bohemian, but I never truly felt it—it was more of a way for me to cope with things as they were.
How did you deal with the widespread interest in your story?
I tried to flee, but was no match for the horde of reporters, who followed me at home and on campus. One even managed to sneak into Silver and found my classroom—I was mortified! I did a couple interviews to get the main force off my back, and then tried to finish the semester as normally as possible. I hid out in the room NYU provided me for the last couple weeks of the semester, trying to study for finals and write my papers. After a few days, the reporters lessened and all I had to deal with was sidelong glances in the elevator from other students.
How did the rest of the students generally receive you? Were you ever concerned about their reaction?
Students were generally supportive. I received tons of e-mail and even some snail mail (addressed to me at Bobst!) from people all over the country who identified with my situation and the rising costs of secondary education. I did get the odd e-mail or comment on a news story calling my experiences faked, telling me that I should have went to community college, or that I was just trying to get attention.
I got very little negative feedback from students at NYU, at least in person. Although some complained that NYU gave me free housing, this was only true for the last two weeks or so of the semester—they did not give me housing for my last two years there! Most surprising of all were the students, both at NYU and at other universities, who shared their own stories of homelessness with me. My experiences were hardly unique, they were merely the ones that managed to gain the media’s attention. To this day, I get about a message a month from students who want advice about sleeping in their own university libraries.
Did you coin the name ‘Bobst Boy’?
A good friend with a flair for the dramatic (Tisch, of course) coined the term for me, and I then used it for myself on my blog and website.
You were a creative writing major at the time, correct?
I was indeed. I thought I wanted to be a writer back then.
Did this experience shape you at all as a writer?
I’m not sure how much it shaped me. I did write about my experiences in future writing classes, but at the time it was too raw for me to write about in any profound manner. I just didn’t have the right perspective at the time to reflect and make sense of my own experiences. If I had the time, I’d love to get back to it someday, but I fear I may never have the chance and I’ve gotten away from writing creatively.
Where it’s affected me more is in my current career as a folklorist, although I would have never realized it then. I now study stories for a living, and my own stay in the library was inspired by rumors I heard about former students living in the library, that it was feasible to do so if you were creative and dedicated. Now, like all stories, my own folds back into that narrative. Current students tell my story, and perhaps use it for inspiration for their own actions.
So, was it worth it?
That question always throws me. Would I do it again? If the circumstances were the same, yes. I wanted to stay at NYU, and the school was right for me at the time. But I won’t lie, it was a horrible time in my life and I was often depressed. I certainly learned much about myself and my own desires, capabilities, and goals, and I value those lessons, hard as they were. And the people I met through the whole process were dear to me, and some remain so. But if someone offered me the choice between living in the library or a free dorm room, I would pick the dorm!
Do you think NYU could have done more to help you out? Better yet, do you think they could now be doing more to help all students struggling with finances?
I’m sure NYU could have done more, but I don’t necessarily think they were obligated to. I honestly was grateful for the assistance I did get, and sadly, students do not have the right to a higher education in this country. What NYU could do better in the financial aid department is better educate students on the types of student loans, interest rates, and the appeal process. But some factors are beyond the university’s control. The factor that screwed me was that although I received no financial assistance from my parents, the federal government still took my parents’ income into consideration.
I have not kept up with NYU’s tuition and aid practices, but I’ve always been a proponent of a flat tuition rate for students—you pay the same tuition for four or five years. It’s unfortunate that few schools have implemented this.
What did an NYU education ultimately mean for you?
Mostly, it meant being in a diverse environment completely different from the rural area where I grew up. Although I received a great education at NYU, like many students New York City itself was my favorite professor. It was just refreshing to live in amongst smart people with such a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.
Where did your blog homelessatnyu go?
I let that lapse years ago. It had served its purpose and honestly, I was embarrassed by some of it. I was so young!
What is life like for you now?
Life for me now is busy, and perfectly boring and mundane, but I am very happy. I’m in the last year or so of my PhD in folklore and medieval studies at Indiana University. I’ve taught several folklore classes and taught students how to recognize and analyze the everyday stories we all hear in our daily lives. On the rare occasion that a student has read about my own urban legend, I use it as an example of how stories get passed around, acted out, and change human behavior.
About a year ago this month, I married my husband Keith, first in a small courthouse ceremony in Iowa, followed by a big celebration here in Indiana. Since then, we have been actively in the process of domestic infant adoption so that we can add to our family. Lately, my days are spent working on my dissertation and preparing for a baby.