By Anthony Langley
“I never thought I’d work in politics,” says Dietra Trent, Ph.D. (M.P.A.’95/GPA; Ph.D.’07/GPA), who was appointed Virginia’s secretary of education in July 2016. “When I was in high school, I wanted to go into law, maybe even get a job at the FBI.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Hampton University, before landing a job as office director for Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott’s first congressional campaign. While working at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, so near Virginia Commonwealth University, she decided to continue her education and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in public administration and policy at the university.
“Before coming to VCU I thought being a part of Bobby Scott’s campaign had prepared me for anything,” Trent says. “When I got here, I realized that was definitely not the case. I had so much to learn, and my time [at VCU] was one of the most formative times in my life.”
While pursuing her doctorate, Trent worked as director of federal relations in the VCU President’s Office under then-President Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D. During that time, she met Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who asked her to serve as his deputy campaign manager. Trent eventually became director of constituent services and director of the Council on Human Rights under Warner. She later directed Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s campaign during his successful run for Virginia’s governor and, in 2014, he appointed her deputy secretary of education.
In the past three years, under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Trent has worked to analyze the effectiveness of Virginia’s SOL tests, to restore confidence in and respect for the state’s teachers and to incentivize college students to complete their degree within four years.
“One of my major priorities has been to create a pathway for student success from preschool to the workforce,” Trent says. “We found an achievement gap between minority students, disabled students and certain locations in the state, and we need to remove as many barriers as possible to get these students to prosper.”
In support of that goal, McAuliffe created the Virginia Children’s Cabinet in August 2014, which aims to align policies and programs to best serve the state’s youngest citizens. The cabinet, co-chaired by Trent and Secretary of Health and Human Resources William A. Hazel Jr., identified three challenge areas around the state that had the highest number of unaccredited schools: Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk.
The cabinet’s attention first focused on Petersburg and, partnering with a number of local businesses and nonprofits, the group helped to combat some of the region’s education issues. First lady Dorothy McAuliffe has spent years working on state nutrition and, as such, the cabinet was able to establish a program that provided students with breakfast and lunch on school days as well as a meal on weekends.
Hazel worked alongside Todd Haymore (M.B.A.’04/B), secretary of commerce and trade, to combat the large number of homeless students in the community by finding stable housing situations and adding three new social workers to the school system.
On the heels of the cabinet’s success in Petersburg, Trent’s team is optimistic as they plan their move to the next challenge area, Richmond.
“We’re working to solidify our initiatives and provide greater access for students to attend and be successful in college,” Trent says. “In my case, being on [VCU’s] campus and knowing that I’m amongst some of the greatest minds in the state was not only in energizing, but it also made me appreciate knowledge. I want every student to have that opportunity.”