First IT grads establish links with each other, GCU
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Just call them vanguards.
But when you talk to seniors Paul Rodriguez, Jake Womer, Bridgette Smith and Timothy Prescott, beta testers comes to mind – apropos, considering on Friday they will become the first IT graduates from the rapidly growing College of Science, Engineering and Technology, which also will soon have its first computer science and engineering graduates.
It was in August 2014 that CSET launched its bachelor’s degree program in information technology.
Rodriguez, who grew up just a couple of blocks away and graduated from Bourgade Catholic High School, was ready to jump in despite the novelty of the program. Not that IT called to him in the beginning. He wanted to major in theater before making a hard right turn from the arts into the sciences.
“My uncle was a systems administrator. I basically grew up building computers with him,” he said. “I thought I’d go with what I’m talented in. I learned to code and build websites. … I honestly didn’t know if I was going to be good at it.”
He also didn’t know what going into a brand new IT program would mean. He learned, however, that it would mean friendships.
“It’s been like me hanging out with all my friends. We’ve gotten really close. I mean, eventually you go down different ways in your classes, and you don’t get to be with them anymore. But there’s classes where it’s the majority of my friends because I was in there studying so often I didn’t get to meet anyone else,” he said, laughing.
Prescott, the only one of the four who isn’t from Phoenix, also made note of the new friendships. The Kansas native was looking for a change from his previous college when he saw a promotional video at a concert advertising GCU.
“I was looking for a degree program that was more along the lines of my passions,” he said, and GCU seemed to fit.
He started out as a computer science major, then switched to IT his first semester and, like Rodriguez, developed close friendships with the small but dedicated cadre of students who, like him, are the first to trailblaze the way.
Courses focus on industry needs
Smith, who nixed her ideas of going into law enforcement when she chose IT and psychology, said helping faculty pioneer a new program has been like being “course developers.”
“The original program was heavily imbued with flavors of computer science and programming,” said Deborah Haralson, lead faculty of the IT program, of those early days. “Over time, we were able to better tune the program into what we were hearing from the industry and what the advisory board wanted to see in our students. As a result, this particular graduating cohort is the most technically well-rounded and adept at all forms of technology to date that I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with.”
Womer wanted to major in engineering, but the engineering program he wanted to enter at GCU wasn’t going to be available for another year, so he decided on IT.
He said what he has loved the most about being here is the professors themselves.
“They really helped the students as a whole, and many are from an IT background,” he said of the program, which emphasizes hands-on learning, less lecture time and more lab and project time.
Rodriguez remembers two professors his freshman year who reached out to everyone: Dr. Steve Powelson, who was the then lead faculty for IT, and Luke Kanuchok, lead faculty in computer science.
“We had this kind of stick-together attitude because there were only about 15 there,” he said, also mentioning Haralson, the “rock” of the department; Al Kelly, the coach of the GCU’s cybersecurity team (the team recently brought home a fourth-place win in the Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition); and Dr. Isac Artzi, the computer science “thought leader.”
Besides being able to compete in cybersecurity competitions, what he loved the most about his time at GCU was serving as the first president of the Innovative Computing Club.
“It basically started out as computer science and IT students trying to survive the new program, and then it quickly evolved into doing outreach projects, programming, learning ethical hacking and getting people to talk to the group from industry,” he said. “We’ve had the ability to grow the new freshmen and grow opportunities and kind of evangelize how GCU does stuff.”
He also has loved working with the community through events such as STEM Saturday and helping Dan Hazy, a recruitment specialist for CSET, with STEM events.
“I started doing programming through Minecraft, and so I would teach fifth, sixth graders,” he said. “I really encourage my younger brother and cousins to do STEM fields. They’ve been my guinea pigs, too. I mean, my brother ate Minecraft up, so I know he got proof of concept. ‘Oh, I can do this,’ he said, and he took it way out of proportion and does ridiculous stuff, and so I’ll build cool stuff with him for science fair projects.”
Three already have jobs
Three of GCU’s first IT graduates already have been working in the field, and one is getting ready for a big exam to make him more competitive in the job market.
Womer is busy studying for his Cisco Certified Network Associate certification, which will test his skills to install, operate and troubleshoot networks.
Smith works full-time for General Dynamics Mission Systems as a user experience researcher, conducting research on software and hardware systems and making sure they’re people-friendly.
“We make sure they have that human element,” she said.
Prescott, meanwhile, is a systems administrator and developer at Emerald AR Systems, a company in Phoenix that serves health care organizations that are looking to improve patient billing processes but might lack the technology infrastructure or other resources to do so.
After graduation, Rodriguez will be right here at GCU, where he works in IT Security. He started full-time two weeks ago.
“I was actually the first student worker for IT Security, and now we have three,” he said.
Little wonder that he’s blazing the trail once again.
As opposed to the IT help desk, which might help GCU staff and faculty with resetting passwords and the like, “We’re in charge of, you know, the firewalls – the security. People reach out to us for phishing. We have a great phishing awareness program that has won a lot of awards.”
He said GCU is producing the next “thought leaders” in not just cybersecurity, which is the path he’s chosen in the IT world, but in technology as a whole. While hands-on experience is good, he said, what separates the University’s students is their adaptability.
“When someone throws a curveball at you, how are you going to learn it? I think that’s what we’re good at. … We really want to encourage thought leadership, outside of stuyding. We’re really looking at expanding that and showing everyone that we will be producing the next thought leaders.”
One thing Rodriguez has heard about GCU’s IT students from companies he has interned for: “A lot of places I’ve worked at said they really want GCU students – that we outshined a lot of the students that they have interviewed that had the same positions, and we put in that extra mile.”
You can reach senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.