Chair, Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences
School of Public Health and Information Sciences
Monica Wendel understands the impact a good leader can make. That’s why she’s made it her mission to strive for health equity – ensuring that those in her community and beyond have the opportunity to reach their optimal health – and empowering those around her, including her public health students, to become change-makers themselves.
As chair of the health promotion and behavioral sciences department in the School of Public Health and Information Sciences (SPHIS), Wendel is dedicated to moving the public health needle toward health equity and social justice, meeting communities where they are and addressing societal and individual health needs from a holistic perspective that affects well-being. But the seasoned scholar didn’t always plan for a career in public health.
The Houston native and first-generation college student spent the first two years of her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M exploring classes of all kinds, without a clear career focus.
“I didn’t see myself going into public health because I never even knew what public health was,” Wendel said. “As a first-gen student, I didn’t really have a good frame of reference. So, I took classes like oceanography and equine science, just because I thought they were interesting.”
She eventually chose a major and earned a bachelor’s degree in English before going on to earn a master’s degree in communication. Wendel then got a job working as a research assistant for a health communication professor who was awarded a large Department of Defense research grant looking at prevention and treatment of domestic violence in the Army.
At the end of that year of research, Wendel still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in her career. That’s when her professor suggested Wendel get a graduate degree in public health.
“I told her I didn’t even know what public health is,” Wendel said. “And she said, ‘It’s ok to not know, but I think you’ll find public health is a really good fit for who you are.’”
Now, looking back on that moment, Wendel is confident her professor was right.
“Justice has always been a strong part of who I am,” Wendel said. “Helping people solve issues in their own communities really resonated with me and made me realize I wanted to spend my time helping set communities up to be independent and successful. My work and what I hope to be my contribution to society is identifying ways to enact structural change or implement structural intervention to actually make the upstream more just and equitable.”
Since joining SPHIS in 2014, Wendel’s passion for social justice has fueled her work. From 2015-2022, Wendel ran the Youth Violence Prevention Research Center, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and focused on changing the narrative around black youth and the violence that affects them. The research helped the CDC move away from using language that blamed youth for the problems they faced versus the structures that lead to violence.
“Shifting the conversation to structural violence was a really big paradigm shift for the CDC,” Wendel said. “The reality is we were using youth violence prevention as a platform for doing racial justice work. It wasn’t just about youth violence specifically, even though we made it about that. But if you address racial justice, you’re going to prevent a whole lot of inequities down the road, not just violence that affects young people.”
Named chair of the department in 2018, Wendel was tasked with articulating its identity. With Wendel at the helm, the department reframed the undergraduate, master’s and PhD curriculum to be centered on health equity, setting the school apart and giving students an edge when they launch into their careers.
“Our curriculum is focused on and grounded in social justice, which is equipping people to actually go out and tackle structural determinants, structural violence and cultural violence,” Wendel said. “And that is unique across schools of public health. I tell students to just know that your experience is not typical on purpose and that also means when you go out into the field, you’re going to know things that some of your colleagues are not going to know.”
Wendel’s research has been far-reaching and impactful, and her dedication to social justice work is creating waves of positive impacts, particularly with her students.
“Being able to do health equity work and prepare students for this work is so rewarding. I am very aware that my biggest impact is going to be on the people I train,” Wendel said. “Because all of their work over their careers is going to be even bigger than just what I did in my career, and they’ll train their own people, and so on.
“The students I’ve worked with throughout my career will be my legacy.”