Noël Mensah-Bonsu’s introduction to Washington State University involved a cross-state journey and a new program for future teachers.
“I wanted to be either a teacher or a pediatrician,” Mensah-Bonsu (’99 Psych.) recalls.
Milton Lang (’98 MA Elem. & Sec. Ed., ’08 EdD Higher Ed. Admin.), former director of student recruitment and retention at the College of Education, had established and coordinated WSU’s Future Teachers of Color Program.
“He is the reason I went to WSU,” says Mensah-Bonsu. “He literally drove across the state”—to Renton—“to pick up me and two other high schoolers and take us to WSU.”
While she has never forgotten his effort, a medical career eventually won her over. Mensah-Bonsu is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. She has also served as program director for the Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Fellowship Program and director of resident education at the Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics at Texas Children’s.
Mensah-Bonsu evaluates children who are not developing, learning, or behaving like their peers, in order to diagnose and treat differences such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning disabilities, among others. She also oversees fellows in patient care, who help families to understand their children and recommending parenting strategies, therapies, and educational accommodations to maximize learning and quality of life for each child and family.
“I decided to be a doctor, but it wasn’t for the usual reasons,” says Mensah-Bonsu. “Truthfully, I did not love biology or dissecting frogs. I was pretty sensitive to smells and body fluids.”
Psychology turned out to be the right route. Mensah-Bonsu landed a job in Michael Griswold’s biochemistry lab at WSU, which provided both practical experience and mentors. “Dr. Gris wrote me a letter of recommendation for medical school,” Mensah-Bonsu notes. “It was a wonderful support system at WSU for my success.”
Mensah-Bonsu supplemented her WSU course work and lab experience by working as an applied behavior analysis therapist for a child with autism. She later attended medical school at the University of Washington.
Becoming a mom helped propel her toward developmental-behavioral pediatrics. During her third year of pediatric residency at the University of Chicago, she gave birth to premature twins, born at 23 weeks. Miles weighed one pound, two ounces at birth and spent five months in an intensive care unit. He is now a six-foot-tall freshman in high school and plays sousaphone in the marching band. His twin Noah passed away at six days old.
“It wasn’t until I had my own preemie and I was trying to figure out how to parent him better and teach him better so he could meet his own developmental maximum—that’s when I came back to training in development and behavior,” Mensah-Bonsu says.
Two of her three children have ADHD, which makes it difficult for them to sit and stare at a screen. “It makes remote education very difficult,” she says, noting how the last couple of years during the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging both personally and professionally.
Her children are 15, 11, and 9, and they—as well as her patients—have all had to learn flexibility and resilience during this stressful time. “Kids with autism,” she explains, “have a hard time with changes in their schedules. They prefer structure and tend to have more challenges with communication and social skills, so that getting back to school in person is crucial to improving their lifelong success.”
Mensah-Bonsu and her family moved in 2015 to Houston, where she fell in love with Texas Children’s and her work helping children with across-the-board learning and behavioral differences.
While she originally went to WSU to become a teacher and “had no reason to think I would end up where I am now,” she says, “it worked out the way it was supposed to work out.”