A new path to Virginia Tech and cybersecurity for students in Northern Virginia
Abdul Basit Tusher faced some high hurdles on his journey to becoming a Hokie.
“From the beginning I wanted to go to Virginia Tech, but because of the distance and because I was taking care of my family, I wasn’t going to be able to go,” said Tusher, who immigrated with his family from Bangladesh to Northern Virginia in 2014.
A new agreement between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and Virginia Tech, however, has helped change the landscape for students like Tusher.
The partnership provides a guided transfer path toward earning a bachelor’s degree in Business Information Technology’s Cybersecurity Management and Analytic option (BIT-Cyber). Offering the first Virginia Tech bachelor’s degree available to students without having to be in Blacksburg, the work-based program removes barriers for students from diverse, non-traditional backgrounds, while also providing access to high-level, workplace-learning opportunities in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.
“I always tell my brother and my friends, 'If you really want something, God will make a way for you to get it,'” Tusher said. “With this program, the dream of going to Virginia Tech came true.”
On Friday, a ceremony was held to celebrate the partnership between NOVA and Virginia Tech, which was officially signed in July.
“This partnership allows students to see a clear path to a four-year degree without losing time, credits, or momentum,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost of Virginia Tech. “From the outset of their studies, NOVA students pursuing an associate degree in information technology or business administration can plan and progress toward admission to Virginia Tech’s BIT-Cyber program and the exceptional experiential learning opportunities that exist in the Washington, D.C., metro area – a region that is home to more data centers and cybersecurity professionals than anywhere else in the nation.”
CyberSeek, a job-mapping tool utilized by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, has identified more than 65,000 open positions in cybersecurity in the D.C. metro area alone, an area that includes Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Maryland.
“Placing cyber students in the D.C. metro area to study, intern, and interact with industry and government is essential to meeting the heightened security needs of the nation and ensuring a fully functioning economy,” said BIT department head, Robin Russell.
This new NOVA-Virginia Tech partnership will build this pipeline for cyber talent and help Virginia Tech continue to live out the charge of being a land-grant institution.
“For Virginia to remain the best state in the nation for business, we have to address this critical need for cybersecurity professionals,” said Robert Sumichrast, dean of Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. “By streamlining the transfer process and incorporating work-based learning, this model provides a diverse student base the opportunity to engage with industry’s most pressing challenges and industry access to top-notch, emerging talent.”
Not only does the program help meet the demand for cybersecurity professionals, but it also helps meet the cybersecurity field’s need to expand its diversity in ways that make it more effective.
Though 95 percent of the 30 students currently enrolled BIT-Cyber are United States citizens – the rest are green card holders — 80 percent were born outside of the country and are fluent speakers of at least one language other than English.
In 2015, about 23 percent of the D.C. metro were foreign-born individuals, according to a report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. At the time, a language other than English was reported spoken in more than 28 percent of homes.
Svetlana Filiatreau, director of BIT-Cyber, said locating this section of BIT-Cyber in Northern Virginia should help harness the strengths of the region’s population.
“This diverse group of immigrants in Virginia has the potential to solve global cyber threats if we’re intentional about integrating this uniqueness into how we work with industry,” Filiatreau said.
Jessica Gulick ’07, founder and CEO of a cybersecurity marketing and cyber games company, Katzcy, and commissioner of the US Cyber Games, has been a guest speaker for the program. She said it’s important for students in the program to embrace their diversity and leverage it as a strength.
“Cybersecurity is different from IT [information technology] in that it’s about more than just administrating security policies. It’s about understanding behaviors online. It’s about understanding why people are doing certain things and what they’re trying to get out of it,” said Gulick. “When it comes to understanding people, your diverse perspective — the culture you know, the languages you speak — really provides an additional benefit to the cyber security community.”
Gulick said the creation of a bridge between NOVA and Virginia Tech will be especially beneficial to this diverse population the program seeks to attract.
“Community colleges play a very important role in our communities because they are very localized. There’s less of an intimidation factor, they’re affordable, and they’re very supportive of students who are also working full time,” Gulick said. “And those are often some of the most hard-working and mature students you’ll find.”
A part of the Virginia Community College System, NOVA is made of six campuses and four centers in Northern Virginia. The new agreement will bolster the already strong relationship between NOVA and the university.
“This exciting new partnership with Virginia Tech builds on our longstanding transfer agreements with the university, increasing access to bachelor’s degrees in the high growth, high demand IT field,” said Anne M. Kress, president of NOVA. “This transfer pipeline aims to fulfill the region’s need for diverse technology talent by enabling our students to continue their education and earn a degree from Virginia Tech while staying close to home. We thank the university for making this new opportunity available to our amazing NOVA students and look forward to continuing to grow the NOVA/Virginia Tech partnership.”
Another beneficial aspect of the BIT-Cyber program is accessibility of the robust network of internship, career, and networking opportunities. The program requires 300 hours of work-based experience, and professors and advisors are constantly providing resources and guidance aimed at better preparing students for the workforce.
“Virginia Tech is helping the students find a job after graduation, and the school is doing a lot of great things, like arranging meetings with recruiters and, whenever there is an opportunistic event, they let us know about it,” said Gokcen Matthews, a student in BIT-Cyber’s first cohort. “They're always supportive, and I love it.”
Originally from Turkey, Matthews married and moved to the United States where she quickly established her own company 11 years ago. She recently decided to explore earning a bachelor’s degree in business information technology and further educate herself in cybersecurity. The partnership between NOVA and Virginia Tech allowed her to easily transfer into the program, which has provided support to help her reach her education goals.
“I’m proud of myself,” Matthews said. “I’m a 41-year-old mother with two little kids. Accomplishing the goal of earning a degree while parenting is not easy, however, once you make a decision the universe conspires to make it happen! I can't wait until the day I graduate and see my kids proudly cheering my name while I will walk to get my diploma.”
Tusher is scheduled to be in the first group of students to graduate Virginia Tech via the new partnership this spring. He echoed Matthews, saying the support of the Virginia Tech faculty was invaluable.
“Everyone is very helpful,” Tusher said. “The thing I noticed about Virginia Tech is the professors and everyone respond very fast when you reach out. It really stands out that when you need help, there’s always a resource there.”
He said he believed the partnership would prove especially helpful in providing new pathways to Virginia Tech for other students from immigrant families living in Northern Virginia.
“Growing up in an immigrant family and then shifting over here, it’s difficult for us to leave our families. Family is big support for us, so there’s lots of students who can’t go to Blacksburg because of that,” Tusher said.
Filiatreau said a critical component of the program was providing additional support to help students overcome any barriers related to cultural differences. She said they also hoped additional involvement from neighboring industry partners could lead to experiential learning being gained through paid apprenticeships. This could help provide relief to students who are also working full time, while also giving industry partners early access to this diverse body of students and aiding in the bolstering of their own cyber workforce.
“It’s all a part of figuring out how we make higher education accessible to non-traditional students,” Filiatreau said. “This is a way to serve our historically underserved populations and fulfill our land-grant mission. My hope is that we can become a driver of innovation in the region and create a pipeline of highly skilled, diverse cybersecurity talent through seamless integration of curricular learning and work-based experience.”