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​ Didar Erdinc, Professor of Economics at AUBG: “AUBG Students Have the Right Mindset to Achieve Their Best”

AUBG Professor in Economics Didar Erdinc has been with AUBG since 1996. Following ten years spent studying, working and teaching in the U.S., she ran across a small ad that said AUBG was recruiting. She applied and the job offer followed soon after. It was the students that convinced Professor Erdinc to accept it. “Not only are the AUBG students bright,” she said. “But they are also thoughtful, tolerant of different cultures and compassionate.”  

Please tell us a bit about yourself: where are you from, where did you study, what has been your professional experience prior to AUBG?

I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. I was educated in Kadikoy Maarif College (now called Kadikoy Anadolu Lisesi), a high school that accepts students based on a highly competitive nation-wide entrance exam. I also graduated from Boğaziçi University (Bosphorus University) with a BA degree (summa cum laude) in Economics- third in my graduating class but first in the economics classes. Boğaziçi University originated in 1863 in Istanbul as the Robert College- the first American college established outside the U.S.  In 1970 it acquired the name “Boğaziçi University.” Robert College still exists and provides high-school education. Both are highly prestigious institutions in Turkey that graduated some of the country’s prominent businessmen, academicians, and politicians such as former Prime Ministers Tansu Çiller and Bülent Ecevit. Some Bulgarian revolutionary leaders who ignited the fight for independence also received their education there. Former AUBG journalism professor Christina Kotchemidova and I went through Robert College’s archives in 1999 and talked to the headmaster who confirmed this to be true.

Upon my graduation, at age 22, I was offered a full scholarship from the University of Southern California (USC, Los Angeles, California) to attend the Ph.D. program in economics. During my graduate studies, I had the great opportunity to learn from some of the most prominent economics professors such as, among others, Richard Easterlin (“Easterlin’s Paradox”), Andrew Weiss, Timur Kuran, Lee Lillard, and Jeffrey Nugent.

I graduated from USC in 1997 with a Ph.D. in economics. During the summer of 1990, I worked at the Rand Corporation (Santa Monica, California) as a consultant on econometric projects under the supervision of Lee Lillard, Director of Quantitative Research. I also taught at the USC’s Business School, and at the MBA programs of Pepperdine University and the California State University, Dominguez Hills. In January 1997, I joined AUBG’s economics department. In 2002, I was on a sabbatical (Hamilton College) and following that I took a leave from AUBG to work at Hamilton College as a visiting assistant professor (2002-2005).  Upon my return, I was promoted to the rank of associate professor at AUBG and continued to publish articles on the Bulgarian and EU banking sectors.  In 2015, I was habilitated as an associate professor by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education.

How did you first become interested in economics?  

This is a long story. :) If you ask anyone in my high school class, they will tell you that they expected me to be a medical doctor, following in the footsteps of my brother, and continuing the family tradition. My great grandfather, my father’s grandfather, received his education in Vienna during the Ottoman period, and he was the private doctor of the Sultan and the founder of the department of optometry in a prominent Istanbul hospital. He was also a “Mirliva” (Ottoman rank) or Major General, and the head of the biggest military hospital in Istanbul. Mine is a family of doctors mostly- I can count at least six in the close family.

My friends always thought I would be a pediatrician because of my love for children and my desire to help people. I thought so, too. But I changed my mind three months before the university entrance exam.  I simply could not endure the sight of suffering people who are in pain. I decided to study economics because I thought this could be yet another way to help humanity, at least by improving their material conditions. In my senior year, I began to read a great deal on major philosophers and classical political economists such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and of course, Karl Marx. Ricardo, especially, had an instant effect on me: This was a new world full of challenges for me- the dynamics of economic evolution, and its impact on societies, political formations and even on revolutions. I was totally fascinated and wanted to have a deeper knowledge and understanding of this process. At age 18 this was probably the key motivation behind my decision.

Our generation strived to be intellectuals and humanists that help humanity prosper. Earning a lot of money and being rich was at the bottom of our to-do lists! I was also curious. For this inclination, I thank firstly my mother for the gift of curiosity, and also my teachers at high school for providing excellent education in math and sciences while also introducing us to great poets, writers and novelists such as Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, T.S. Eliot, J. D. Salinger, George Orwell, William Golding and Carson McCullers. How would I otherwise be able to read so many great books that left their mark on me, books such as “Animal Farm”, “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Lord of the Flies”? Indeed, before “The Lord of the Rings,” there was “Lord of the Flies” :) The economics program at Boğaziçi University was my top educational choice because of its rigorous education, international campus free of prejudice, and excellent faculty and because the university adhered to democratic principles even in the classrooms. Then it turned out that economics came naturally to me.

What are your favorite teaching topics and why?

I love teaching econometrics and principles of macroeconomics. I have taught almost all the economics courses offered in a typical economics program in the U.S., including even “Industrial Organization”- a deep micro-based subfield I am only remotely interested in.  I specialize in macroeconomics, financial economics, and econometrics with an emphasis on banking. I like to teach econometrics and all its variants such as panel data, and time-series because this gives the students a chance to see how abstract economic and financial theories can be verified by real-world data through the actual workings of the economic systems, banks and stock markets-- in short, through the behavior of people. Despite future uncertainty and potential risks, homo economicus follows a strategy and behaves in a certain pattern that can be largely predictable and forecastable. I love to look at my students’ faces when we observe and prove such patterns. They are totally impressed, and so am I. :)

What led you to AUBG?

Honestly, what led me to AUBG was a small ad at the JOE (Job Openings for Economists) of the American Economic Association (AEA). What a major impact reading and acting on this small ad had on my life! :) It was a tremendous journey- even in the worst of times in the history of AUBG, I enjoyed and learned from it. I also brag that I joined this wonderful institution at the time of its infancy, and was part of its success while laying its foundations brick by brick.   

I was in Los Angeles when I saw AUBG’s advertisement in JOE. My initial reaction was “Oh, how great! An American university, and in Bulgaria, too - so close to home!” and I asked myself “how different could it be from home?” I would like to thank my students, my colleagues, and the staff members at AUBG for making me feel so welcome here and really making this place my lovely home.

Two AUBG economics faculty members interviewed me in San Francisco at the AEA Annual meeting in 1996 and invited me to campus in March the same year to give a presentation on my job market paper. So, I flew from Los Angeles to Sofia.

The offer came shortly after. The faculty was nice but it was the AUBG students who really convinced me to come to AUBG. They were (and still are) terrific: bright, intellectual, and very sociable. During lunch, we even discussed Russian classics! They wanted to explore beyond their current surroundings, learn more about different cultures and make a decent living in their future career. We talked about my background and the opportunities I was given- and how post-communism Bulgaria will change along with all other post-communist countries that are now dubbed emerging Europe. This was a period of great economic instability in Bulgaria, just before the 1997 reforms. I assured these students that things will only change for the better and will improve drastically-- by following the right economic reform program to end the economic suffering of the people caught in the middle of history in the making.

I should also mention that when AUBG’s offer arrived, the happiest person was probably my mother who was so thrilled to hear that there was a possibility for me to come closer to home after spending 10 years in the U.S. She said: “Come to this university and help the ‘komşu’ (the neighbor)”, meaning Bulgaria and its people. This was a very nice touch by her and I accepted the offer. I still thank my mother for her gut feeling.

What do you enjoy about teaching to AUBG students?

So many things! AUBG students are really special: Not only are they bright but they are also thoughtful, tolerant of different cultures and compassionate. They can think independently and creatively. I have numerous stories with them that I have accumulated over the years but there is no space to tell them all here. They have the right mindset to achieve their best. Sometimes they are too ambitious but hard-working people have this deficiency. :) I know for sure that without their unsolicited support it would have been too hard for me to endure the loss of my brother who passed away in 2017.  We can also laugh together: in a recent time-series econometrics class, a graph on forecasting turned out to be ridiculous so we put the blame on the software and laughed together. :)

What advice would you give a recent graduate on building a fulfilling life and career?

A bit of standard advice would be to “pursue your dreams.” Yes, but first, know yourself, or in Latin, “Nosce Te İpsum.” Knowing yourself will lead to accepting and working on your weaknesses while trying to excel in your strengths. Dream your own dreams, not what is dictated by others. Only in this way you can have a self-fulfilling career and a life with dignity.  Think outside the box. Many problems we face as individuals and societies can be solved by changing our perspectives and working on them. Have empathy for the less advantaged and always keep at least a small circle of good friends whom you can rely on. As the Buddhist mantra says: Om mani padme hum.

What are some of your hobbies?

I love swimming and music: all sorts of good music but I have a special fondness for blues, rock, and jazz. I used to write poetry but not anymore. Lately, I try to find the poetry in life among the people and events that life brings to us! This is not always joyful but is even better than writing poetry-at least for me. :) I love all sorts of art but especially paintings- Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Osman Hamdi Bey, Vermeer, and Fahrelnissa Zeid.

What has been your experience of living in Bulgaria?

Overall, it has been a great experience! Despite the language barrier, probably this is one of the very few cultures that I can connect with just through smiles and hand movements. I have never felt like an expat here because of the great hospitality I have received! I can relate to the people, culture, and history. It is no secret how much I care about the people here.

Interview by Dimana Doneva

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