By Joe Garvey

Seven students make up the first cohort of Old Dominion University's "Preparing Future Cybersecurity LeADERS through Applied Learning Experiences" initiative, which is funded by a $3.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation's CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program.

Working with Tidewater Community College and Thomas Nelson Community College, the project will ultimately prepare 24 cybersecurity scholarship students for careers with the federal government. The students will participate in ODU's LeADERS project, benefiting from cybersecurity programming and support services offered in the Center for High Impact Practices. They will be referred to as Cyber LeADERS Scholars and will receive a full in-state tuition scholarship, an annual stipend ranging from $25,000 (for undergraduate) to $34,000 (for graduate students) and a professional development allowance.

In addition, a case management model bringing together representatives from Career Development Services, the Office of Financial Aid, the Center for Advising Administration and Academic Partnerships, and the Coastal Virginia Center for Cyber Innovation will be used to provide the Cyber LeADERS scholars coordinated support.

As part of the grant, the scholars will have to complete summer internships with government agencies. After graduation, they will be required to work for the federal government for a specified amount of time, typically equivalent to the number of years they were funded for.

"What is especially significant about this project is that it brings together our strengths in educating cybersecurity professionals, engaging in experiential learning and promoting high-impact practices," said Brian K. Payne, vice provost for academic affairs, director of the Coastal Virginia Center for Cyber Innovation and principal investigator for the grant. "In addition, the Cyber LeADERS program builds on the strong partnerships we have with TCC and TNCC."

The seven students are:

Jaidan Williams: She finished her associate of applied science degree in cybersecurity at TCC and is coming to ODU in the fall. She will pursue a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity with a minor in risk management and insurance, with a planned graduation date of May 2023. She works for the U.S. Coast Guard Services Command. She was part of TCC's STEM Promise Program and the Women Inspiring Self-Empowerment Leadership Development Program. She recently introduced President Joe Biden at a TCC event. "You're going to be among" the best-trained cybersecurity professionals in the world, Biden told her.

"I've always been optimistic and very much open to new ideas and eager to take advantage of opportunities that have come my way," Williams said. "The most rewarding and memorable times in my life have come as a result of moments when I've stepped out on faith and accepted unlikely opportunities."

Williams added that she's grateful to receive the scholarship.

"I have a desire to serve my country that has presented me with various opportunities to succeed," she added. "This grant will allow me to become a well-rounded cyber professional."

Karen Ann Etulle: She immigrated from the Philippines and after arriving in the United States became a victim of domestic violence and wound up homeless with four children. Her story was featured on WVECand on TCC's website. She also wrote an essay, "Braving the Storm," that is included in Rashatta Daugett's book "Daughters of the Storm, Vol. 1." She's finishing at TCC and will do co-curricular work at ODU during the upcoming year before enrolling full-time. The grant covers TCC and ODU tuition.

"I am truly humbled and feel so blessed to have been selected for the scholarship," Etulle said. "Not a lot of people get to have a 'do-over' like this. I will have to admit, there was a time I got so close to giving up, but my children kept me strong. I am glad I stayed positive and kept the faith. I will commit myself to pay it forward to the people and the community who helped us when we had nothing and to our new home country that gave us a second chance at life. I will be forever grateful."

Jacen Davis: He is enrolled at Thomas Nelson Community College, and his grant will cover TNCC and ODU tuition. He has worked long hours in a part-time job and is committed to federal service. He will be coming to ODU this year for co-curricular work. He is working toward a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, with a planned graduation in 2024.

"The grant opportunity is the realization of my hard work and commitment to cybersecurity, allowing me to further my educational and career goals through federal service," Davis said. "My family is very proud of me for this accomplishment, and I am excited to get my education at one of the best universities in the country for it."

Drew Brown: He was a hospital corpsman in the Navy for six years and has worked at Norfolk Naval Shipyard building reactor compartments. He will receive his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering technology with a minor in cybersecurity in December and expects to complete his master's degree in 2023.

"It is an honor to be selected to join ODU's Cyber LeADERS Scholars Program funded by an SFS grant to complete a master's degree in the School of Cybersecurity," he said. "This enables me to continue working with ODU and its evolving cybersecurity projects."

Ivan Santiago: The junior cybersecurity student is a former director of administrative affairs for the Student Government Association. He will be completing his bachelor's and master's degrees in cybersecurity. He's interested in working for the FBI.

"An opportunity like this only occurs once in a lifetime, and for that I am truly grateful," he said. "Upon receiving this award, I have realized that hard work truly pays off over time. I will continue to strive for success and serve my country to the best of my ability."

James Read: He earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from James Madison University. But he enrolled at TCC to get an associate degree in cybersecurity after realizing he was more interested in that field. He helped lead the development of the Coastal Virginia Cybersecurity Student Association. He will be getting his master's degree in cybersecurity in the program.

"This is a chance to make a course correction in my life," he said, "to move into one of the most challenging and in-demand career fields of the day with the peace of mind and the confidence that I will be able to focus on really learning the material and getting the most out of every class. It will also be an opportunity to lift those around me and reach back to bring others with me through service and leadership opportunities."

Zobair Wali: He immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 2017, and his application for the program included a compelling description of what it was like to live in a war-torn country. The Denbigh High School honors graduate is a senior network developer in ODU's ITS department and supervises a team of interns. He is double-majoring in computer science and cybersecurity and expects to graduate in 2023.

"I'm truly delighted and grateful to be a recipient of the SFS scholarship," he said. "This grant is providing me with an opportunity to solely focus on my education, future career and prospects."

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