The two faculty members on South Arkansas Community College’s (SouthArk) MentorLinks team had high expectations of their MentorLinks mentor Elizabeth Hawthorne based on the positive things they had heard about her from information technology instructors at other colleges.
Then, at their first MentorLinks meeting in October 2019, Hawthorne exceeded expectations by offering to endorse their qualifications to attain the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential.
“That was a big game-changing moment for us to go after that CISSP that we’d just dreamed about for years,” said Roslyn Turner, a computer technology instructor. She and Vicki Badgley, then South Ark’s director of computer information technology, had taken CISSP courses to inform their teaching. But the cost of the CISSP exam and the requirement for an endorsement by a CISSP member were hurdles. As of January 2022, there were just 152,632 CISSP members worldwide.
“Vicki and I always loved security; that’s why CISSP was our dream,” Turner said, adding that preparation for the rigorous exam is on par with the investment of time involved in earning a master’s degree.
Changes based on employers’ needs
With Hawthorne’s encouragement and endorsement, attaining what Turner calls “the gold standard” cybersecurity credential became one of the many tasks they tackled and accomplished while restructuring the curriculum for the associate of applied science degree in computer information technology (IT). The revamped program stacks IT skills for certificates that count toward an associate degree. In this way, the program gives student the opportunity to choose to specialize during their third and fourth semesters in networking, programming or cybersecurity.
The specializations are based on guidance from the program’s industry advisory board, which Turner and Badgley revived to meet their MentorLinks objectives. The employers’ request for technicians with strong work ethics and communications skills led Badgley and Turner to add a customer service course and a business communications course to the curriculum.
“We want to produce graduates they want to hire,” Badgley said, referring to the region’s employers at the 2021 MentorLinks meeting.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) offers MentorLinks to help community colleges develop or strengthen technical education programs in STEM fields. MentorLinks provides mentoring, professional development, and technical assistance with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. AACC will open the application for the next MentorLinks two-year cohort in April.
Due to Covid, South Ark and the other colleges in the 2019-2021 cohort received no-cost extensions through fall 2022.
Confidence, experience and more
Hawthorne explained in an email that she considered the CISSP credential essential for Turner and Badgley because they aspired to achieve it, and accomplishing this goal would boost their confidence. And it did.
But, more importantly, Hawthorne wrote, “the knowledge and experience they gained through that intellectual pursuit provided them with the ability to infuse cybersecurity content into their existing IT certificates and associate degree program. The trickle-down effect was the ultimate goal to prepare their community college students with updated skills to secure well-paying jobs and change the trajectory of their lives for the better.”
At the time she mentored the South Ark team, Hawthorne was a senior professor of computer science and cybersecurity at Union College (New Jersey). She is now an online lecturer at Rider University and co-principal investigator of the Community College Presidents’ Initiative in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (CCPI-STEM), an ATE project.
Badgley, who retired in 2022, continues to teach at SouthArk as an adjunct instructor. She said that MentorLinks “helped me to grow as an instructor because I learned to fine tune the content being delivered to my classes.” She explained that she grew as a cybersecurity profession too thanks to the additional skills she acquired and the other professionals she met because of MentorLinks.
Turner has found that their CISSP credentials have added credibility to the program with employers and students.
“We teach security in every course,” she said, not just the specialization electives.
“I think we have a very good program. We have worked hard to find out what our local employers are looking for. A lot of our students don’t want to leave the area,” Turner said, adding that most employers in rural South Arkansas want entry-level technicians who are jacks-of-all-trades with deeper skills in one domain.
Forging close ties
Aside from boosting their professional skills, Turner said that she and Badgley feel fortunate to have had the unanticipated benefit of becoming friends with Hawthorne from their almost-monthly phone calls with her and numerous texts and emails in between those scheduled conference calls.
“Her mentorship has just been invaluable to us because we have gained not only knowledge and new relationships – you know, other contacts and such – but we’ve gained a real friend,” Turner said.
Badgley added: “The best gift of all was the enduring friendship that developed with our mentor. What started out as a professional relationship has ended as a friendship.”
Hawthorne agrees. She explained that when mentors develop a rapport with mentees, it is the first step in making a lasting impact. “When that rapport turns into friendship, then that’s when the MentorLinks magic and significant difference truly happens for both the mentees and mentor. I think the longer the mentoring time, the better the chances of developing a friendly relationship,” Hawthorne said.