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DHS will expand cybersecurity intern program

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A U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) summer internship program for community college students focusing on cybersecurity was so successful, the department plans to ramp it up.

Twenty-three community college students worked at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices this summer as unpaid interns, or what DHS calls “student volunteers.”

DHS plans to recruit more students for another round early next year involving another DHS agency—not yet determined—as well as ICE, said Douglas Maughan, director of the Cyber Security Division in DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate.

Maughan hopes the announcement for the next round will be published in late October or early November, with 12-week internships to begin in February or March. He would like to see the program expanded to three rounds a year.

Help with forensics

Student interns in the first round worked in labs with forensics investigators, examining computers, phones and other electronic devices confiscated by ICE agents during immigration and customs raids. The students helped ICE personnel conduct validation testing of forensic hardware and software, conduct research on forensic issues, create training presentations, provide technical support related to surveillance and investigative systems, ensure file integrity and set up virtual computer system environments.

DHS selected students with knowledge of cybersecurity issues who were enrolled in an associate degree or certificate program in such areas as computer science, electronic engineering, network engineering, information systems or a related area. They were required to have a grade point average of at least 3.0, be a U.S. citizen and pass a drug test and background check to obtain a security clearance.

The students were expected to learn how to “apply science, mathematics, engineering security, and forensics concepts to real-time cyber tasks,” according to a DHS factsheet. The students were trained in “pertinent legal issues, computer skills and forensic tools that they will apply as a computer forensic professional.”

The 23 interns worked anywhere from four to 12 weeks; some of their assignments lasted through the end of September.
Overcoming transfer hurdles in cybersecurity
To recruit the interns, DHS sent an announcement about the program to all community colleges within 50 miles of ICE’s 36 field offices. Nearly 300 people applied, Maughan said. After their applications were evaluated and vetted, 200 candidates were interviewed by ICE officials.

Maughan’s office is planning to survey the 23 interns on their experiences and the recruiting process. 

“We were trying to do something quick and see if it was going to work,” Maughan said. “If I could project five years down the road, I would love to have these set up as paid internships that count toward a degree.”

The community colleges weren’t involved in the program beyond notifying students about the opportunity and determining whether students would receive credit for their work at ICE. As the program matures, Maughan would like to see the colleges take on a bigger role.

A two-year college pipeline

DHS is reaching out to community colleges because they “tend to be much more focused on the practical implications of the technology,” Maughan said. Students taking cybersecurity classes at community colleges are often already in the workforce, he noted. He called community colleges “an untapped market of students that we haven’t reached out to before.”

The internship program is part of the DHS Secretary’s Honors Program Cyber Student Initiative, which also focuses on recruiting veterans for cybersecurity jobs, promotes cyber competitions and supports other outreach efforts.

The idea for the intern program came from the Task Force on CyberSkills, which then-Secretary of DHS Janet Napolitano directed through the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council. The task force issued 11 recommendations aimed at strengthening the cybersecurity workforce, including a proposal to “expand the pipeline of highly qualified candidates for technical mission-critical jobs through innovative partnerships with community colleges, universities, organizers of cyber competitions, and other federal agencies.”

Training warriors for the cyber battlefield

“We believe the task force was right in urging us to tap into the community college pipeline,” Maughan said.

The 19 task force members represent institutions of higher education and education organizations and include three community college leaders: Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges; Rufus Glasper, chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges (Arizona); and Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College (New York).

“It’s been an honor to be invited to serve on the task force,” Bumphus said. “DHS hadn’t previously realized the influence of community colleges in cybersecurity training.”

Bumphus noted that some of the best cybersecurity education programs in the nation are at community colleges, citing Prince George's Community College and Anne Arundel Community, both in Maryland, as having particularly strong programs. 

Mellow and Glasper are active members of a subcommittee dealing with creating pathways to DHS careers.

“DHS has been very, very responsive to our recommendations, and the agency is beginning to implement them,” Mellow said.

For example, the agency is changing its policies and practices to be more responsive to the needs of international students by removing barriers that prevent a spouse from working or prevent a student from working during the summer due to restrictions on immigration, Mellow said.

No clear definition

One of the key challenges for the task force is the lack of a clear definition of cybersecurity, Mellow said. On one hand, cybersecurity refers to the billions of dollars spent by the National Security Agency on sophisticated computer systems to unencrypt communications among international terrorist networks, she said, while on the other hand, it also covers small business owners who need to know how to ensure security for online orders. 

“We need to be clear. Almost any certification or degree program a community college offers that allows students to engage in coding, or computer systems or analysis has implications for cybersecurity,” she said, adding that cybersecurity is integrated into a wide range of programs. “Keeping a website secure, being able to conduct appropriate conversations online, knowing when a small business’s website has been hacked is all part of cybersecurity.”

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