By Jonah Grinkewitz

Ivan Santiago is no stranger to working hard.

When he started at ODU, he held three jobs –an assistant manager at Autobell, a part-time employee at Nike and director of administrative affairs for the Student Government Association – just to pay for his housing and living costs. That was on top of being a full-time student.

“As anyone could imagine, that’s not easy,” Santiago said.

His mother’s G.I. Bill covered tuition for his first two years of school, but then he had to come up with a plan.

“It was a rough time trying to figure out how I was going to continue my education,” he said.

“I got the opportunity to focus on school, and not have to bounce from work to personal life.” - Ivan Santiago, the first graduate of the Cyber LeADERS Program.

He applied for scholarships, looked for higher-paying jobs and considered taking out student loans. At the same time, he was wrestling with what to study. He was a computer science major and had always been interested in technology.

“Just changing the HDMI cord on the TV, my parents thought I was the IT person,” Santiago said with a laugh.

Still, there was something lacking about the subject for him. Both of his parents are in the Navy, and public service is important to him. He decided to switch to cybersecurity because of its importance to the nation as we enter a more technology-driven world.

“It’s dangerous to be negligent and naive to the kind of technology that is out there,” Santiago said. “The measures we have in place today may be completely different from what we have a year or two or three from now.”

He applied for the Cyber LeADERS Scholars Program through ODU’s School of Cybersecurity. Funded by the National Science Foundation CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) initiative, it provides select students financial support for two to three years. In return, students must work for the federal government in cybersecurity positions for the same amount of time.

Santiago remembers the day he was accepted. “I was out doing something, and I got the email and just erupted with so much emotion.”

In addition to covering his tuition, the program gave him a stipend to cover housing. No more working three jobs.

“I got the opportunity to focus on school, and not have to bounce from work to personal life,” he said.

Now, Santiago is the first student from the program to graduate.

“I am so proud of Ivan,” said Brian Payne, vice provost for academic affairs and director of the Coastal Virginia Center for Cyber Innovation. “He is hardworking, intelligent, empathetic and committed to public service.”

Aside from the technical aspects of the field, Santiago sees his best strength as leadership.

“He puts his experience and knowledge to use for the betterment of others,” said Megan Mize, director of ePortfolios and digital initiatives at ODU. “He has demonstrated all the characteristics of an engaged student and community member that ODU hopes to foster and elevate.”

Santiago hopes to become either a cryptographic officer in the Navy or work for the National Security Administration (NSA). And though the journey was uncertain, he’s glad he persevered through the challenges.

“Sometimes school gets rough, and you think to yourself, ‘Is this really worth it? Is this what I want to do?’” he said. “I’m proud of myself for sticking through it.”