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Opening Doors in the Defense Industry

Alexandra Trent ’18 is forging a civilian career in national security

July 8, 2024
By Catherine Tyson ’20

Photo by Rachel Rosales

When Alexandra Trent ’18 tells people she works in the defense industry, she often hears the response, “You smile too much to work with the military.”

With seven years of experience as a civilian in the Army, Trent brings her curiosity and unabashed smile everywhere she goes. In 2022, that included traveling to Germany to work as an operational planner after the start of the war in Ukraine. There, she briefed senior Army leadership, including four-star Gen. Darryl Williams, on NATO planning and policy.

Now, she has transitioned to the private sector. This March, Trent was hired as deputy director of Pacific operations for Onebrief, a defense-tech startup based in Hawaii. As one of the company’s first female leaders, Trent highlights the opportunities a career in the defense industry can offer civilians, women and anyone looking to serve and lead.

A picture of Alexandra with her grandfather on the Crim Dell bridge at W&M.
Alexandra Trent on the Crim Dell bridge with her grandfather, Nelson Trent, before a W&M football game in October 2012

Growing up in the small town of Farmville, Virginia, Trent had big dreams. At the age of 8 she was focused on two goals — getting into William & Mary and traveling the world.

“My grandparents used to take me to Williamsburg twice a year,” she says. “I fell in love with the history, the beauty of the place and the thought of studying at William & Mary.”

Trent was admitted to W&M early decision. She decided to study languages, pursuing an interest she felt would open the door to international travel while making her more than just a casual tourist.

While studying Russian, Trent got her first opportunity to go abroad in the summer of 2016. Traveling to St. Petersburg with a group of W&M students, she spent 10 weeks exploring the culture, language and food. For Trent, the trip was eye-opening.

“My study abroad reinforced the truth that people are people wherever you go,” she says. “While it can be easy to associate the people of a certain country with that country’s leadership, there is so much more to the picture.”   

Another formative experience for Trent began the summer before her senior year when she interned with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) at Fort Eustis in Newport News. With no military background in her family, working for the Army wasn’t on Trent’s radar. But she was curious and open to trying something new. She applied and got the job.

During her internship, which lasted 11 months, Trent traveled to the Pentagon, took part in an Army campaign planning war game and conducted a research project on the history of military training in collaboration with Dennis Alcides Velazco Smith, associate chair and teaching professor of government at W&M, for college credit. Most of all, she asked questions and learned. One of the most profound takeaways for Trent during her internship was discovering the critical importance of civilians in the armed forces.

“Military personnel move a lot,” she says. “It’s important to have a civilian corps to provide continuity, people who can stay in one place for a long time and help pass on knowledge from one generation of the Army to the next.” 

To expand opportunities for students seeking defense-sector careers, W&M began a partnership with TRADOC in 2013 which continues under Military & Veteran Affairs and the Whole of Government Center of Excellence (WGC). Through collaborative projects, internships and experiential learning opportunities, W&M students and TRADOC soldiers benefit from the resources and knowledge of their respective organizations. Over the last 10 years, more than 70 students have held internships and other research positions with TRADOC.

Thanks to the close ties between W&M and TRADOC, Trent encountered other students and W&M alumni during her time as an intern. One of them, with whom she’s remained in contact, is retired Army Col. John Bessler ’85, P ’12, P ’14, who ended their first one-on-one meeting by singing “Our Alma Mater” with her.

After graduation, Trent continued working with TRADOC, feeling at home among the people and certain that “the Army was going to take me places.”

Her intuition was correct, and new doors kept opening. At the start of the war in Ukraine, she spent time in Germany supporting U.S. security assistance efforts for Ukraine and leading a team at U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command (USAREUR-AF) responsible for building operational plans with NATO to deal with conflicts in Europe. Her experience studying in Russia helped her to understand the political and social dynamics there and allowed her to bring an important perspective into the room.

From Germany, Trent moved to Hawaii, where she managed the foreign disclosure program at U.S. Army Pacific Command, determining what information should be shared with America’s foreign partners and allies and exploring the challenges and opportunities of building partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

In March, after almost seven years with the Army, Trent decided to make the leap to the private sector and began her role as deputy director of Pacific operations at Onebrief, a company whose mission is to design cutting edge software that enables faster, more collaborative military decisions for the U.S. and its partners and allies.

“Seeing an alumna like Trent succeed in the defense arena and address today’s most challenging problems is another example of William & Mary educating for impact,” says Capt. Kathleen Jabs, U.S. Navy (ret.), special assistant to the president for military and veteran affairs.

Trent’s move from the Army was motivated by a meeting she had in Germany with Christine Wormuth, the U.S.’ first female secretary of the Army. As Wormuth’s escort officer during her visit to USAREUR-AF, Trent had a chance to see a powerful woman in action.

“Seeing Wormuth walk into the room and completely command attention was awe-inspiring,” says Trent. “Her example encouraged me to think limitlessly and proves that women are starting to achieve the representation they should have in the armed forces.”

As secretary of the Army, one of Wormuth’s chief aims is to make the Army a data-centric organization. Her vision made a lasting impact on Trent, who decided she could help move the needle on this goal by working at Onebrief.

Image of Alex with colleagues in Hawaii at a farewell celebration before she moved to Onebrief.
Farewell ceremony for Trent at U.S. Army Pacific Command (USARPAC) in Hawaii, March 2024

Having benefited from the guidance of many mentors along her career journey, Trent strives to be a mentor for others, especially young W&M women interested in taking a similar path. When she learned of the launch of William & Mary’s WGC in 2018, Trent was eager to take part in events and networking.

In 2019, Trent attended WGC’s second annual national security conference, “National Security Today Through 2028: Women Leading the Next Decade.” She collaborated with other conference attendees, including WGC Director Kathryn “Kay” H. Floyd ’05, one of her W&M mentors, to publish the conference’s synopsis in “Small Wars Journal.”

“One of the strengths of our programs, whether an internship or convening, is we open the door for students to engage in matters of national security even if they have no background and no prior experience,” says Floyd.

One example of this is the National Security Internship Program, through which the WGC facilitates internships for undergraduate and graduate students. Earlier this year, W&M was awarded $500,000 in funding for this internship program to support students looking to take a similar path as Trent.

“Alex is the living future of women in national security,” says Floyd. “Her keen intellect, grace and emotional intelligence allow her to process the challenges of this world and share her strategic insights in such a way that people really hear the weight of her words. With Alex and others like her carving paths forward together, women will be well-represented in the defense industry.”