Juan Hernandez with text

City on a Hill, Part 3

Learning 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? Politics and history major Juan Vargas Hernandez ’21, a student from Colombia, saw the best of American values being lived out here and wanted to be honed by them.

Juan grew up in a military family and is all too familiar with terrorism and facing constant security threats. He as a child often had to hide from rebels. There were bombs and violence in the cities. All those challenges, though, he sees as helpful to shaping him into the person he is today. He was taught to have strong morals, he says, in a country where corruption is a major problem. His desire to be continually molded into a man of good character attracted him to Hillsdale College. “The people who come to Hillsdale, the influence that they have on you, and the good example that they set, are very very important to me. Everyone is just kind and gentle, very helpful,” he said.

He knew the transition would be hard, but he loves challenges. Coming to Hillsdale was a shock to say the least. The geography, climate, food, and culture are all vastly different. He does get bouts of homesickness now and again, but ultimately coming here was worth it. “I’ve enjoyed this place so, so much, and I don’t think it’s because it’s just any American college, but because it’s Hillsdale. You have a deeper way of learning things that you probably would never hear about in some other places.”

Juan attended college in Colombia for a year before transferring here. During that time, he studied politics but found it lacking. “I had read Machiavelli, Plato, Socrates, so many times at college before. Then I came here and had to read the same things again…and it was completely different than my experience in Colombia! That really shocked me. I was getting a completely different perspective on the things I thought I knew. All these learning experiences, all these fantastic professors, have been very important for helping me understand I want to learn as much as I can to take this knowledge—which you can’t find anywhere else, unfortunately—back to Colombia. I want to make my home country a better place.”

Juan would like to run for office in Colombia. “I think that with hard work, persistence, a lot of prayer, a sincere desire to help the people, and standing by your principles, great things can happen.”
I couldn’t help but admire Juan for his vision and courage. To take what Hillsdale has to offer and bring it back home seems fitting for a patriot who wants to see his own country thrive. His hopes and mine are similar in that sense: we are learning American principles, held in the highest regard here, so that we may secure their blessings for ourselves and our posterity. To know that international students like Juan love these principles and see their worth reaffirms my belief that what we have here at Hillsdale, and here in America, is rare, good, worth preserving, and worth fighting for. It reminds me of the idea of America as a city on a hill; how fitting that Hillsdale College, described as a polis by Dr. Habib and an imitator of the American model, is literally atop a hill.

What is it about America, lived out at Hillsdale College, that is so special? “It’s this notion of universal rights, that every society should be like this,” Dr. Pongracic said. “We act as the shining city on the hill for other societies to see that they would be better off if they adopted this way of doing things. I still firmly believe American exceptionalism means, ‘Here is a better way that’s applicable to every society around the world, putting individual rights as the highest political goal: protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is what America stands for.”

Professors like Habib and Pongracic, and students like Juan, are proof that this high ideal is, in fact, real.

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