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Cyber Warrior program opens doors for HBCU students

Hunkered down in computer labs on Friday nights and Saturdays for 10 weeks straight, groups of college students worked through courses that wouldn’t earn them a single academic credit but could foster a larger, more diverse workforce for the cyber industry.

The students at four Maryland Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Morgan, Coppin, Bowie and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — were participating in the Cyber Warrior Diversity Program. The multi-semester program provides students with non-credit, no-cost training and testing so that they can earn certifications in A+, Network+ and Security+.

The program is the brainchild of Lance Lucas, founder of Digit All City, a company dedicated to expanding technology education opportunities to socio-economically disadvantaged populations. Lucas started providing tech training to disadvantaged Baltimore City teenagers 20 years ago then worked to expand that service through partnerships with the Obama Administration. While participating in a White House Initiative on HBCUs seminar on the need to increase diversity in the cyber security workforce, Lucas connected with officials from Northrop Grumman. Together, Digit All City and Northrop Grumman launched the pilot of the Cyber Warrior Diversity Program.

The need for the program was obvious, Lucas said. For-profit schools dominated cyber training and charged anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 per student. “I knew that poor people would never get that opportunity,” Lucas said.

Furthermore “every community college in the state had a sponsored certification program — everybody except for Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” he said.

The pilot program proved to be both popular and successful. It generated 100 percent certification completion at Coppin, 120 percent at Morgan (due to over-enrollment). “Every student got an internship and one student got a permanent job. It was amazing,” Lucas said.

Convinced of the program’s efficacy and the need to address a fundamental inequality in education, Lucas and others successfully lobbied the Maryland General Assembly to pass bills in 2018 and 2019 to create a state-sponsored Cyber Warrior Diversity Program, allocate $2.5 million annually for the training and expand the program to all HBCUs in the state as well as the University of Maryland Training Centers.

“This was a major civil rights advancement. This is equality through education and development and employment,” Lucas said.

The program is also a formidable tool in expanding and diversifying the cyber workforce pipeline, said Gloria Pualani, Corporate Director of Global Supplier Diversity/Government Relations at Northrop Grumman.

The curriculum “is developed and taught by trained computer professionals with CompTIA and Cisco Certification. The training is intensive and immersive. These committed professionals have operational experience that is highly sought after and relevant to the current needs of our nation,” Pualani said. “It is a highly efficient and effective way to bridge the gap between the aerospace and defense industry and academia.”

By providing “foundational and specialized cybersecurity knowledge,” the program “opens the door for students to get additional training for several further certifications…and obtain the Department of Defense 8570 Cyber Certification,” she said.

Pualani acknowledges that the program’s tendency to schedule training sessions on Friday nights and Saturdays (to avoid any conflicts with class schedules) initially concerned her. Would teenaged college students willingly and regularly give up prime weekend time?

But each program, of approximately 20 students, filled and successful completion/certification rates have ranged between 80 and 120 percent.

The program’s logistics — specifically, 10 weeks, 50 training hours, Friday night and Saturday classes, with no academic credit — has actually driven the success of the program by ensuring that only serious students enroll, said Dr. Kate Brown, Interim Dean, School of Business and Technology at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. UMES started its first semester of the Cyber Warrior Diversity Program this January. Eighteen of the 20 students had successfully completed their A+ certification by mid-June and the other two were still working on it.

Brown believes the program could help UMES technology students greatly increase their career prospects.

“One of the best things we can do in all of our programs is find industry certifications that increase the employability of our graduates,” she said. “We are thrilled with this program… It is 50 hours (per semester) of intense instruction external to anything else the students were doing…and it leads to industry certifications.”

The program, she added, will also connect students to employers and potential job opportunities by providing them with passes to the Black Engineer of the Year Award Conference and job fairs.

Numerous students in the program have landed industry internships and some gone on to full-time, permanent jobs.

“The first student we hired has been such an ambassador for his school and for this program,” Pualani said. “This young man has incredible insights. He has actually spoken in front of our leadership team and our CEO. I think he is going to go far.”