Sylvia Trent-Adams’ paternal grandma, Naomi, taught her to hold first impressions loosely, to reserve judgment until you’ve walked a mile in the other person’s shoes.
Trent-Adams, herself, though, cuts a distinct first impression. A farmgirl from Virginia who rose through medical and military ranks to become the acting surgeon general for the United States under former President Donald Trump, she speaks with fluency and a soft twang about diseases that helped shape the last half-century: HIV, Ebola, addiction, COVID-19. As a nurse and public servant, she’s treated or advocated for people affected by each of them.
That latter focus on people, rather than disease or dealings, uniquely qualifies Trent-Adams for her newest challenge, according to colleague David Mansdoerfer: After a national search, she is the sole finalist for president of The University of North Texas Health Science Center. Mansdoerfer, special assistant to the president at the Health Science Center, met Trent-Adams in 2017, when they both worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He calls her approach “empathetic leadership.”
“When you go through hard things and make difficult decisions that impact people … there’s the right thing to do and then there’s the right way to do it. Sometimes it’s hard to do both,” Mansdoerfer said. “She can very much do both.”
The previous president, Dr. Michael Williams, left the role Jan. 1 to become chancellor of the UNT System. Trent-Adams, who has served as the Health Science Center’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer since 2020, will formally take the helm in mid-September.
Hometown: Concord, VA
Education: Hampton University, B.S. in Nursing (1987); University of Maryland, Baltimore, M.S. in Nursing & Health Policy (1999); University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Ph.D. in Public Policy (2006)
Family: Husband, Dennis; Daughters, Nadira and Alexa
As a girl in Appomattox County, Virginia, Trent-Adams learned to care for people through observation. Only one physician worked in her county in her early years, she remembers. To help, her family adopted roles in healing.
She watched her grandma bring people soup when they were sick and take them in when they were poor. Her great aunt was a nurse, and her mom impressed upon Trent-Adams the importance of approaching people with humility.
“‘You’re not empowered to judge people,’” Trent-Adams remembers her saying. “‘You love people for who they are, you meet them where they are.’”
Her family’s goodwill toward people who were sick, shaped by a Christian faith, trained Trent-Adams to see people as more than their disease.
At 12, she began volunteering in her community hospital. That introduction to a clinical setting, coupled with a four-year ROTC scholarship, spurred her to study nursing at Hampton University, a historically Black university east of her hometown. When she graduated with her bachelor of science in nursing amid the AIDS epidemic, some of her earliest patients were dying of cancer and HIV.
Years later, after she traveled to Liberia during the 2014 Ebola outbreak to spearhead response efforts for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and after helping manage the Ryan White HIV/AIDs Program, Trent-Adams received the Red Cross Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international honor bestowed upon a nurse, for her work in public health.
What she counts as achievement, though, is not necessarily the work that makes headlines, she said. Instead, it’s quiet moments beyond the spotlight — hugging an HIV patient after his family disowned him, listening to a cancer patient’s stories when anxiety kept her awake at night.
“Leaving things better than you find them, is probably what I would say, for me, is an accomplishment,” she said. “And it’s not always the big things that get press coverage. It’s little things every single day: You see someone who’s having a bad day, you can do something to brighten their day or give them encouragement. That’s also, for me, success.”
She encountered a similar energy, a similar desire to make a difference, among the students and staff at the Health Science Center when she visited for the first time in January 2020.
“There is something palpable about this campus,” she said. “I noticed that day, and I continue to feel it every day that I’m here.”
By then, she was Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She’d served with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one branch of the uniformed services whose officers work in agencies across the government, for nearly three decades, and she was ready to retire. She came to campus to speak about the opioid epidemic.
The Health Science Center’s energy stuck with her, and she stayed in touch with then-President Williams as the COVID-19 pandemic began. She caught a plane to Fort Worth the day she retired from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Not long after, in October 2020, Trent-Adams began her position as senior vice president and chief strategy officer for the Health Science Center.
“Sylvia Trent-Adams is one of the most accomplished, admired and effective leaders in higher education and specifically, health care,” Williams said in a press release about Trent-Adams’ newest role. “This is a pivotal moment for HSC – one full of extraordinary possibilities to pursue new knowledge, serve the community, and enhance education and health care – but also a time of unique challenges in an ever-changing higher education landscape. Such an era calls for skillful leadership, strategic thinking and disciplined execution. Dr. Trent-Adams will provide just that.”
Her vision as president echoes her family’s commitment to caring for people when professionals were scarce. A physician shortage still exists across Texas and the country. Through community partnerships, Trent-Adams plans to harness both high-tech opportunities like artificial intelligence and low-tech opportunities like CPR training and blood pressure screening to help people help themselves when medical services aren’t accessible.
“I care about Fort Worth, and I see a lot of potential here in this city,” she said. “It will take all of us to make the community, the school and the surrounding areas that we serve successful. We have to work together, and I’m open to being a partner and making that happen.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the name of the institution where Trent-Adams earned her Ph.D.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.