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CCRI student, alumnus earn scholarships through online cybersecurity competition

Sept. 11, 2019

Community College of Rhode Island student Raul Martinez and Class of 2019 graduate Wilkin Sanchez recently earned scholarships through their participation in a nationwide online cybersecurity program for college students and graduates.

Martinez and Sanchez, both Providence, RI, residents, each took home a $500 Cyber Honors Academy Scholarship for their performance in Cyber FastTrack.

The program, offered by the renowned SANS Technology Institute, is an annual competition in which participants learn various aspects of cybersecurity – from forensics to security operations – through challenges, quizzes and tutorials. There are four stages of Cyber FastTrack and scholarships are awarded based on overall scores in addition to the number of stages completed by each participant.

Martinez and Sanchez are two of 178 scholarship recipients – and only three from Rhode Island – out of the more than 13,000 participants from various two- and four-year colleges in 26 eligible states.

CCRI also succeeded at the team level with 10 of its 44 participants reaching the quarterfinals, which ranked 48th nationally among qualifying colleges.

In addition to scholarships, top performers in Cyber FastTrack also earn opportunities to conduct mock interviews with prospective employers or train at the SANS Institute to continue studying forensics and cyber defense.

“I was so excited when I got the email saying that I had won the scholarship. I couldn’t believe it!” said Martinez, a native of El Salvador who is studying Cybersecurity at CCRI. “This program is awesome and a fun way to practice the skills I have learned from my courses at CCRI, plus you get to learn more skills throughout the competition. I can’t wait to give it another try next time the registration opens.”

Sanchez, 25, a native of Bani, Dominican Republic, enrolled in ESL courses at CCRI in 2014 after moving to the United States and currently works as a Ground Control Support Specialist at Envision Technology Advisors in Pawtucket, RI. He plans to transfer to Rhode Island College to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or earn an additional scholarship through Cyber FastTrack to study cybersecurity at the SANS Institute.

“Earning this scholarship was a great feeling,” Sanchez said. “I started the Cyber FastTrack program just because I wanted to gain more knowledge in cybersecurity, not because of the scholarship itself. However, it felt very rewarding knowing that I won something at the same time I learned.”

Sanchez will also compete this fall in the National Cyber League, a biannual cybersecurity competition for high school and college students consisting of a series of challenges such as identifying hackers, recovering from ransomware attacks and breaking into vulnerable websites.

“What’s even more telling than their success is the initiative these students have taken, from putting the Cybersecurity Club together to getting themselves affiliated with the National Cybersecurity Student Association,” said CCRI Computer Studies Assistant Professor Michael Kelly. “As much as you can learn in the classroom, these are the opportunities that keep your mind sharp and keep your skills up to date by forcing you to delve into the unknown and think on your feet.”

CCRI also earned designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) from both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Defense through its promotion of higher education and research in cyber defense in addition to providing the workforce with a pipeline of qualified cybersecurity professionals.

The Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (CAE-IAE) program, which develops the curriculum and requirements, launched in 1999 and now has more than 270 institutions nationwide, including CCRI, with CAE-CD designation.

Institutions with CAE designation are eligible to compete for grants such as the Department of Defense Cybersecurity Scholarship or the National Science Foundation’s Scholarship for Service Programs. The CAE community works hand-in-hand with employers in the cybersecurity industry to help students develop the necessary skills to enter the workforce and actively engages with government representatives to provide educational workshops and other opportunities for member institutions.

“We’re very proud to earn a Center of Academic Excellence designation,” Kelly said. “This puts us on the map for a lot of different things and we’re now part of a larger community of designated schools.

“The designation process was a good self-study of our program and gave us a sense of what our strength are. We are new to this phase, but, hopefully, it opens up some meaningful opportunities for our students.”

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