Dean of Humanities returns her to Texas roots

Sharon Nell begins her first year as St. Edward’s University new dean of the School of Humanities this fall. When Father Louis Brusatti stepped down from the position last year, a search team interviewed applicants from across the country. They chose Nell, a former associate dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University Maryland.

Nell is a native Texan. She lived in Fort Worth and Richardson then later she received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Houston and her Ph.D. from Rice University. She has also worked at Texas Tech University and was the department chair of modern languages and literature at Loyola before her most recent position there.

Her background is in French literature and culture. Nell cites the incentive of studying abroad in Paris as one of her biggest motivations for enrolling in college. She has taught French language and literature for 20 years and travelled to France 12 times, at one time living there for two years.

In an interview with Hilltop Views, Nell discussed her new position, the experiences that brought her to St. Edward’s and her excitement for the future of the university.

How she became the new dean of humanities

“It was very odd. We have family who live in Austin, and every time I’d drive by on I-35 and see St. Edward’s I would think, ‘If there’s ever a job there, I’m applying for it.’ Then last October, I was looking on the Internet at one of the sites that posts jobs at universities, and I just put in the search words ‘dean’ and ‘Texas,’ and this job came out. So I applied.

“You never know what’s going to happen with these jobs; in a way it’s like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean… It worked out very well. It worked out better than I could have ever hoped.”

On her Texas roots

“I love Austin. I’m from Texas. I lived in Houston for 18 years, and I was born in Midland. When I was growing up, I lived in Fort Worth really briefly, and I lived in Richardson for two years before moving to Houston right before my senior year in high school… So I’m a native Texan and, what can I say? I love Austin.

“I have four kids, and my oldest daughter lives here in Austin. My daughter went to the University of Texas for her undergraduate degree. So she lives here and all the time she was at UT, we would come down and visit. And my husband is a native Houstonian, and all of his cousins lived in Austin. So we know Austin, and it’s very cool to be here. We’re quite excited.”

Her plans for her time here

“Well, there are a lot of things that are changing right now at the university… Right now the School of Humanities is divided into areas, and we are going to be working on changing those areas to departments. It will mean that instead of an area coordinator, we’ll have a department chair. So we’ve got some things that are kind of on the horizon in that regard.

“But other than that, I’ll be supporting the programs in the humanities. It’s all very exciting. I was not working mostly with humanities departments before coming here. In my work as associate dean [at Loyola], I was working with programs that were in natural sciences, all graduate programs. So I’m very excited to be back working with languages, and theater, and journalism, and writing, and all of the humanities programs again. It’s all very cool.”

Her relationship to Holy Cross values and the Strategic Plan 2015

“Loyola is a Jesuit school; it was founded by the Society of Jesus. But there are a lot of things that are very similar [to St. Edward’s]. One of the keystones of the Strategic Plan is global preparedness, and one of the pieces of that has to do with study abroad. I’m very enthusiastic about that, not only because I’ve taken students to France, but because to me that was really the defining moment of my own time as an undergraduate. I spent a year in France as an undergraduate with a group and an on-site director, similar to the situation in Angers.

“So I guess that’s part of the thing that really impresses me about St. Edward’s, that there’s this brilliant idea to create portal campuses in countries around the world and to send faculty and students where you can learn the language, learn about the culture of the country and really see things from the perspective of the people who live there.”

On what she looks forward to the most in her new role

“I’m really looking forward to getting to know the French program, obviously, and all of the letters programs – writing, English literature, as well as finding ways to support photocommunications, theatre, art. I mean, it’s a very rich school, so I’m really looking forward to experiencing the richness of the cultural life in the School of Humanities with the students, with the faculty, and becoming part of the community.”