COOKEVILLE – Tennessee Tech is training cybersecurity professionals and placing them in the workforce.
During commencement ceremonies on Saturday, seven students in the Tennessee CyberCorps program — Joe Bivens, Lauren Good, B.J. Ledbetter, Ryan Shivers, Zach Wallace, Sam Wehunt and Joshua Wilson — earned their degrees before heading off to work in cybersecurity.
“They are developed professionals who can communicate in any venue to any audience they need to and they have a skill set to back them up,” said Eric Brown, assistant director of Tech’s Cybersecurity, Education, Research and Outreach Center. “It’s been amazing to watch them develop as professionals.”
In response to the critical shortage and high national demand for highly trained professionals in cybersecurity, the National Science Foundation awarded Tech a $4.3 million grant in 2016 through CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program. The grant, hybrid program in cybersecurity and subsequent boom of cybersecurity students coming to Tech has been the hard work of Ambareen Siraj, a professor in Tech’s computer science department and the founding director of Tech’s CEROC program.
“Three years ago we were not even on the map with CyberCorps. The center didn’t even exist three years ago,” said Brown. “Three years down the road, because of all the students and all the work that they have done, and the diligence Dr. Siraj has had and some amazing things she has pulled off, we are a recognized brand now.”
The CyberCorps grant provide scholarships for 26 Tech students over a five-year period. The students complete their advanced degree in cybersecurity in Tech’s computer science program and afterwards are expected to secure a position with government and national labs to defend the nation in the cyberspace. Tech is among an elite list of 76 higher education institutions in the nation who run this program.
“These students who are going out to these jobs now are becoming the next group of defenders for America’s cyber infrastructure,” said Brown. “These young people are becoming our next round of trained cyber defenders who are protecting the type of lifestyle we are accustomed to now.”
Tech’s CyberCorps students have varied backgrounds and different reasons for coming to Tech in the first place.
“I knew I wanted to be a computer scientist and the computer science program at Tech was reputable,” said Bivens, who is from Tellico Plains. “I didn’t have any formal computer science experience in high school, and I didn’t have any cybersecurity experience until Dr. Siraj reached out to me about looking at the CyberCorps program. Once I started to try out cybersecurity, I really fell in love and found my passion on that path.”
Wilson, a former marine from Ocoee, Tennessee, started his education at a community college before deciding on Tech.
“I didn’t know anything about cybersecurity. My community college at the time didn’t offer a cybersecurity program. I had to look into it and find out what it was,” said Wilson. “It didn’t take me long to figure out it was perfect for me, especially with my military background.”
Wallace grew up just down the road from Tech in Baxter. After graduating from Upperman High School he came to Tech for computer science.
“It’s something that just fell in my lap at the right time,” said Wallace. “My favorite thing about CyberCorps is being able to go around the country to different conferences and the job fair in Washington D.C. I have made a ton of friends at those different things. You get to build a really big network of people and make a lot of connections.”
Good, a native of Greencastle, Indiana, and a transfer from Depauw University, has enjoyed networking and making connections. Especially with all the opportunities for women in cybersecurity.
“One of the things I really like is that we have a Cyber Eagles woman’s club. It’s particularly for women in cybersecurity and it’s a great support group,” said Good. “Dr. Siraj is also the founder of the WiCyS conference, women in cybersecurity, and attending that has been really cool.”
Tech’s CyberCorps program includes 24 students less the seven that graduated on Saturday and two — Cordell Medlin and Darren Cunningham — who graduated last fall. Bivens, Ledbetter and Wehunt were the first students to enter the program.
“One of the things I like most about CyberCorps is that it gives you the framework to become the technical professional you want to be,” said Bivens. “It gives you a pathway where you are encouraged to think about and discover things you love to do and set goals along that path.”
When the program comes up for renewal in two years, Tech will not only have been in the top 10 percent of all the CyberCorps programs in the nation. It will have also produced 34 professionals in the cybersecurity industry.
“We are dedicated to cybersecurity,” said Wilson. “That’s one great thing I’ve enjoyed about Tech as well as getting to know everybody in the CyperCorps program and making friends. I would encourage anyone with a military background to get into cybersecurity. You have a security mindset to begin with. You are protecting against enemies.”