Houston Directs Gonzaga in Florence


August 12, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga University has hired Jason Houston, Ph.D., as director of its Gonzaga in Florence study abroad program. Houston combines scholarly expertise focused on Italian language and literature of the Medieval and Renaissance period with experience building immersion experiences for U.S. students in Italy.

“Gonzaga in Florence is a unique and irreplaceable part of Gonzaga’s history, culture and mission, and holds an important and prestigious reputation among academic institutions in both Florence and in Italy,” said Houston, who comes to Gonzaga from the University of Oklahoma. “This exceptional set of circumstances gives the program the chance to model how study abroad programs can mutually benefit communities, both in Spokane and in Florence.”

Joseph Kinsella, assistant academic vice president for global engagement, credited Pat Burke, the most recent dean of the program, and the program’s founders Jesuit Fathers Neil McCluskey, Clement Regimbal, Tony Lehmann, Anthony Via and Bruno Segatta for embracing learning through cultural experiences. Kinsella said he was compelled by Houston’s experience as director of the Italian program at UO.

“While Dean Burke was very successful at reinvigorating the academic quality of the program, Dr. Houston will help faculty and students connect their cultural experiences with the concepts and histories they learn in the classroom. This subtle but important shift will return us to the founders’ original dream of immersion in Florentine society,” Kinsella said. 

Houston and wife Monica Sharp have long aspired to raise their children bilingually (Victor, age 5, and Eleanor, 1) in Italy.

“When family friends hosted me in Europe at age 14 for my first study abroad experience, my worldview changed, becoming richer and broader,” Houston said. “When I returned home and read Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy as a sophomore in high school, I decided then and there that I would pursue a career that would allow me to continue to learn and teach others about Italy, and medieval and Renaissance culture.”

Houston believes that Americans and Italians have a special connection and much to learn from each other, particularly through business and cultural connections that are far removed from Italy’s reputation as a cultural museum.

“For example, Italy is a leader in renewable energy, and they are applying those technologies through vast investments in the U.S. This provides an additional possibility to find meaningful collaborations through GIF,” he said.

As a faculty member for 13 years, Houston has witnessed many changes in how universities approach their central mission of educating students, affirming his belief in the educational power of studies abroad.

“Although I recognize the importance of technical advances, which allow for new pedagogies such as online and distance learning, my experience has proven time and again that a personal study abroad experience is at the heart of the educational mission of a liberal arts university like Gonzaga,” he said.

GIF students study diverse subjects, and staff and faculty take an immersive approach to teaching traditional subjects such as Italian language, Renaissance art and philosophy, as well as courses in science, technology, engineering, math and business. Houston will work to find new ways for students to engage in the local Florentine and Italian communities.

Houston began his UO teaching career as a visiting assistant professor of Italian in 2003. He was promoted to assistant professor in 2004, and to associate professor with tenure in 2011. He was appointed faculty-in-residence at the Walker and Cate centers at UO in 2006, along with his wife. After completing his undergraduate studies in humanities and Italian language and literature at University of Oregon (1997), he earned master of philosophy degrees in Italian language and literature (2000) and Medieval studies (2002), before earning a doctorate in Italian language and literature (2006), all from Yale University.

Gonzaga in Florence is its 53rd year and is the foundation of the University’s study abroad program, which places students in more than 60 universities worldwide. GIF is housed in Gonzaga’s Mozilo Center, a short walk to the heart of downtown Florence.