Colleges seek new ways to foster cybersecurity mentorship programs

To do its part to strengthen the workforce, EDUCAUSE recently created a program that includes a potential mentorship component. The Information Security Journey, available on the EDUCAUSE website, offers guidance, shares stories, and helps connect potential mentors and mentees at every stage of an individual’s career.

“The Pathways program really takes people from early entry-level jobs all the way up to CISO roles, and that helps with workforce development, ensuring we have a pipeline of new talent coming into security. of higher education information,” says Kelly. “I think one of the really cool things about it is how the pathways are structured. At each level there’s a call to action, which connects people with mentorship opportunities, with resources they can use to advance in their careers.”

EDUCAUSE also offers individual and group mentoring opportunities, called Mentoring Circles, in a variety of fields, including cybersecurity. Kelly was particularly excited about mentorship circles, which he says provide opportunities for professionals to share successes or brainstorm solutions to specific issues that are the focus of each meeting.

“If there’s a problem you’re struggling with, maybe a technical problem, you can come together in these mentorship circles and maybe someone at an institution who’s already solved multi-factor authentication can help you learn all the elements to that, and we found those to be really, really popular,” Kelly says.

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In both types of mentoring, Kelly says, the training is an opportunity to hone and practice the skills taught in cybersecurity education. Perhaps most important is the opportunity to work on soft skills – things like confidence and communication that aren’t explicitly part of university curricula.

“In cybersecurity, we’re sometimes accused of being the geeks, the nerds of the world, and having that high-level relationship helps you with those soft skills,” Kelly explains. “There’s this aspect of professional development to both take that technical sense that students and young people at the start of their careers may have and move it to something that has a business context and understands the mission and vision of the university.”

Kelly says some colleges and universities have also implemented in-house mentorship-type programs, creating what he calls a “pipeline” of new talent among students and incorporating them into schools’ cybersecurity offices, a relationship that he sees as a winning solution. win for students and schools. Such a program exists at California Polytechnic State University, for example, where a small cybersecurity staff is bolstered by student help.

“These programs may not be directly called mentorship programs, but it’s really that pool of manpower that helps fill labor shortages on campuses, and it’s also very helpful. to pair that real-world experience,” says Kelly.

Addressing diversity and equity through cybersecurity mentorships

In Massachusetts, an organization working directly with cybersecurity students is looking to not only build a future workforce, but one that more accurately represents the country’s makeup.

A 2021 report from the Aspen Tech Policy Hub details the underrepresentation of minorities and women in the field. In September 2021, the Black (9%) and Hispanic (4%) communities were vastly underrepresented in cybersecurity compared to their percentage of the US population (13 and 19%, respectively), and women made up only 24 % of cybersecurity workforce. .

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The MassCyberCenter — part of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a state-funded group — created a mentorship program in 2020 with the explicit goal of closing some of these representation gaps. Stephanie Helm, a 29-year veteran of the US Navy who served in information warfare, is the director of the MassCyberCenter and says she drew on some of her own professional experiences to help launch the program. of mentoring.

“Coming from my background in the navy, I was one of the first women to do anything. It was very intimidating, sometimes, to step into a field where you weren’t sure what was going on – was I really welcome or not? Along the way, someone reached out to me,” Helm says. “Usually it was a man, but that person was sensitive enough to understand that ‘there might be a way for me to be included in this community and become a leader.”

MassCyberCenter’s mentorship program is entirely voluntary and involves students in academic or cybersecurity certificate programs, pairing them one-on-one with a professional in a number of industries across the state. The three-month program concludes with a presentation from the students for the entire cohort, highlighting the projects they have worked on with their mentors.

The MassCyberCenter program has grown from a cohort of 10 students in the fall of 2020 to a class of 41 in the spring of this year. Helm says she looks forward to the day when former mentees return to join the program as mentors once their careers are established, but for now she is focused on the confidence boost mentees get from their time. in the program.