Ivan Pongracic

City on a Hill, Part 2

Teaching Economics at a Patriotic College

Written by Jacquelyn Eubanks

From our statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, to our Constitution 101 and American Heritage core classes, Hillsdale College makes a point of studying and celebrating the United States. But what might that feel like for students or professors who are immigrants or citizens of other countries? According to professor of economics Ivan Pongracic, who moved here from Yugoslavia, coming to America was a dream come true, and working at Hillsdale is the best place to live out that dream.

The culture of Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, toys like Legos, and rock‘n’roll so iconic to the United States captured the heart of Pongracic as a kid. The values behind them—rugged individualism, liberty, exploration, universal human rights—made America an enticing place to live.

Pongracic’s father, a public auditor in Yugoslavia in the 1980s in charge of “checking the books,” saw firsthand that the socialist system was unsustainable and on its way to collapse. Although under the dictator Tito they had enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom, when he died the Western money he’d been receiving through loans dried up, lines started forming, and ethnic tensions started fomenting. Dr. Pongracic recalls at age twelve having to wait in lines for milk, detergent, and coffee. He especially resented communism when the power would go out and he would have to carry his bicycle up a dozen flights of stairs to his apartment.

“My dad had been raised to be pro-Western, pro-America in particular. He just loved the U.S. When he was growing up he loved all the Westerns, American music, and he was brought up to hate communism,” Dr. Pongracic reminisced. “It was his childhood dream to live in the United States.” That love, combined with the realization from his job that the economy was headed toward implosion, motivated him to immigrate. “But it was hard to get into the U.S.,” Dr. Pongracic admitted. “Legally, it’s a tough process. He had tried starting in 1977, constantly applying from the American Embassy. But he had nothing special—no family already here, nothing that could bring him over. He kept getting rejected. But he wouldn’t be deterred.”

That’s when his father started reading American books to practice his English and stumbled upon National Review. “He knew nothing about Conservatism, or anything like that. But he became very interested in all that stuff, and noticed one person captured his attention more than most: Russel Kirk. He started seeking out Russel Kirk’s articles and reading his books. Then, in 1983, National Review advertised in its magazine a summer conference at Grove City College, and Russel was a keynote speaker. My dad wrote a letter to the organizers of the conference and asked if they would sponsor his visit and help him to get there. They were so amazed that anyone from Yugoslavia was reading National Review and knew about Russel, so they said, ‘If you just pay for the plane ticket, we’ll take care of the Visa and all other expenses so you can stay here.’” Needless to say, Pongracic’s father attended the conference, met Russel Kirk, and then was surprised with an invitation to visit Kirk’s family home in Mecosta, Michigan.

After a week spent there, Kirk invited him to study with him for a PhD. He got a student visa, came back home from the conference, and told his family to start packing. In February ’84 the Pongracic family came to the United States, moved to Mecosta, and studied with Kirk. While the frigid, dreary Michigan winters shocked his family, who was used to the paradisiacal Mediterranean Coast, and small town rural America was a far cry from Yugoslavia’s largest city where they had lived, Pongracic saw it as one big adventure and at no point wanted to go back.

Teaching economics at Hillsdale seems to have brought his story full circle: he promotes free market capitalism as the antidote to socialism, which destroyed his country of origin. He believes only at Hillsdale College could he teach the realities of socialist economic policy. Although many universities teach exclusively the political and economic systems whose disastrous consequences he witnessed firsthand, he revels in teaching the brilliance of the American system and American principles that made this country a beacon of hope to him when he was a child.

Jacky Eubanks Jacquelyn Eubanks, ’20, is an award-winning author with a passion for books, tea, and mountains. Someday she’ll be a world traveller, but for now you can find her typing away at her newest novel.

Published in November 2019