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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Loading… Cybersecurity program grows

“I swear my husband’s grandmother thinks that I’m fighting cyborgs or something,” cybersecurity major Miranda Skar said. // Photo illustration by Jaden Moon

By Emily Erskine

If you hear the relentless tapping of keyboards coming from a lab in the Communications Facility, don’t worry. It’s probably just cybersecurity students coding away.

This fall, Western welcomes its third graduating class of cybersecurity majors. This major requires 29-38 credits in courses ranging from data networking to secure software development, and an existing two year computer science-related degree.

Small class sizes are increasing each year as students with computer science degrees from community colleges like Whatcom Community College join the program.

There are currently only 36 students enrolled in the degree, and according to cybersecurity major and senior Miranda Skar, a lack of understanding from peers about what cybersecurity is and why it is important.

“I swear my husband’s grandmother thinks that I’m fighting cyborgs or something,” Skar said. “She heard I was doing cybersecurity, gasped, and said ‘That’s dangerous!’”

Skar earned her associate degree in computer science at WCC then immediately began her cybersecurity degree at Western. She said she hopes to use her degree to find a job utilizing ethical hacking.

“I probably want to work in the private sector,” Skar said. “I really want to do penetration testing or red team, which is basically hacking into a company’s system and telling them how to fix them.”

The high demand for coding and cybersecurity has influenced many students’ decisions in choosing to pursue this newly-adapted major. Many companies now rely on computer coders to find gaps in their existing programs and to advise them on how to solve them.

Laura Ghan, cybersecurity program coordinator and adviser, helps students transition into the major from their previous colleges.

“It’s totally doable to just leap into [coding and programming], it’s just like learning a new language,” Ghan said. “Some students go into this for a well-paying, high-demand job and others just try it for the first time to see if they like it.”

This is Ghan’s second year as the cybersecurity adviser. She and Cybersecurity Program Director Erik Fretheim work together to help students succeed and raise awareness about the major by regularly advising and meeting with area high school students interested in the program.

“It’s a very small program so it’s nice. I really get to know the students in the program,” Ghan said. “They are all very focused and driven, so they’re really great to work with.”

Students must complete 90 credits in a computer science-related degree at a partnering college before being admitted to the program. Because the program is a college-to-university collaboration, students must complete the first half of their degree before coming to Western.

Ghan said the goal at Western is to consistently open connections with other colleges in both Washington and Oregon.

“We are always actively adding more articulation agreements to try to open up that pathway for students from all over the state,” Ghan said. “Because it’s such a small amount of qualified people in this field and there’s a lot of push from all different sectors to create more qualified people in cybersecurity.”

Due to proximity, most students in the program come from Whatcom.

WCC Computer Science Recruitment and Retention Specialist Tyler Ciokiewicz works closely with students to ensure maximum success.

“My favorite part is working with the students and watching them be successful with my own eyes,” Ciokiewicz said. “Whatever success looks like for them. Usually it’s transfer or employment.”

Ciokiewicz has been with Whatcom since the cybersecurity partner program began four years ago. Situated in Baker Hall, the cybersecurity program’s hub, it’s easy for students to reach out to him and ask for guidance or support.

Ciokiewicz said students in the major at Whatcom have to complete a set of hands-on courses, including an operating systems class equipped with a lab and real-world driven coursework such as computer forensics and web design.

Students are also encouraged to participate in Collegiate Cyber Defense Competitions to compete against other schools in cybersecurity-related scenarios.

Along with the defense competitions is the Association for Women in Computing, which provides conferences for women in computer science to network and promotes professional growth and opportunities for women in the program.

Ghan and Fretheim hope to see more women in the cybersecurity program and want to promote a safe and welcoming community within the department.


This article was updated on April 16 to correct the term “ethical coding” to “ethical hacking.”


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