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Celebrate Diversity Month profile: Dr. Sylvia Trent-Adams, UNT Health Science Center

Dr. Sylvia Trent-Adams
Dr. Sylvia Trent-Adams

April is Celebrate Diversity Month and HR Highlights is celebrating by presenting a UNT World faculty or staff member who works to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their professional and personal lives. Follow UNT System (@untsystem) on Twitter and Facebook for #CelebrateDiversity profiles, events, movie and book lists, recipes and more throughout the month. Our latest Celebrate Diversity profile is... 

Dr. Sylvia Trent-Adams, Executive Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer, UNT HSC

Rear Admiral (retired) Sylvia Trent-Adams, former U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, brought her impressive career to the Health Science Center in October 2020, her latest endeavor in a barrier-defying career. She served as Acting U.S. Surgeon General from April 2017 to September 2017, and has held numerous leadership positions at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). From 2015 through 2018, Dr. Trent-Adams was the Deputy Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service branch of more than 6,000 officers on the front lines of public health.


Before she joined the Office of the Surgeon General, she worked in the HIV/AIDS Bureau managing the $2.3 billion Ryan White Program, which funds medical care, treatment, referrals and support services for uninsured and underserved people living with HIV. The recipient of numerous awards, Dr. Trent-Adams provides a first-person perspective into what diversity means to her and her experiences with prejudice and progress in America.

What does diversity mean to you?
Everyone is unique and different. We all bring something to the world that is of value and special. It is important to learn, communicate, ask questions and approach others with an open mind and open heart. We all have a story. We may never know how much we all have in common if we don’t take time to appreciate the humanity of our lived experiences. Our exterior presence or how we show up is never the whole story.

Is there a particular personal story throughout your career, either in the military or in academia, that you share publicly that speaks to the intolerance or tolerance (progress) of our society toward people of a minority group?
I recall an experience early in my education where a guidance counselor met with me to go over the results of a standardized test. I scored high on the test and she asked me two questions: First, how did I score so high on the test? And second, What did I want to do after high school? I told her I planned to go to college and graduate school to do something in the health care field, probably to become a nurse or maybe a lawyer in health care. She told me that may not be the path for me because college was expensive and very difficult. I immediately thought about what my father might say if he had been in the room listening to the conversation. I clearly remember that in my mind. I totally disregarded her words because in my house college was not optional. Per my mother, it was an expectation. 

The ironic thing about the situation was that my teachers were just the opposite, they challenged and inspired me to push myself to reach my full potential. I often think of all the students that counselor may have discouraged by her words. Even to this day, I reflect on that conversation and appreciate my parents’ support and guidance as it related to my education and dreams of a career in health care. Educators are put in a place of authority in the lives of students to help them to be successful, not thwart their success and kill their dreams. Where I grew up, teachers and counselors were revered. They were pillars of the community and trusted without question to do the right thing to make sure all students were given the opportunity for a great education and life of possibilities.

As someone in a leadership position who has broken barriers on multiple levels, is there a level of responsibility you feel you have to speak out on issues of diversity?
I feel it is my obligation as a successful, African American woman to speak up and actively engage to help find solutions to address issues where there is a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is critical for me to give back to as many people as I can, regardless of their racial/ethnic background, gender identity, religion or where they come from. Throughout my career, people of all races, genders, sexual orientation, religion and from all corners of the earth have supported and guided me. I am grateful to have been blessed with people in my life who stood up for me and created space for me to grow and develop as a leader. I learned a lot about leadership by watching others. This includes the good and the bad. Bad leaders taught me how to not treat people when I became a leader. The good leaders demonstrated how to motivate and inspire even the most difficult employees to find their way. It is not always easy to be the only, the first or the outlier, but someone has to do it. Why not me and why not you?

How far have we as a country come in regard to diversity, and how far do we still have to go before all people are treated equally regardless of their race, sex, religion, gender identity, etc.?
I think we have made some progress as a nation, but we have a long way to go. There is still a significant gap in equality and justice in this country. We are quickly becoming a more diverse nation and it presents an opportunity for us to really examine how to create a more perfect union, whereby all people in the United States of America can have the opportunity to experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Justice should be for all, regardless of the labels that are placed on us by society. We will only get to a better place if everyone can be heard, have a seat at the table, contribute to the solution and be treated with fairness and respect.