National conference's GenCyber Day makes the circuit at GCU

Sheridan Sells (center) of Chinle High School in the Navajo Nation explores GCU's Esports Arena on Friday during GenCyber Day. The event was a precursor to the NICE K12 Conference, a national conference for cybersecurity educators.

Noemi Caballero didn’t have to worry about landing a job after high school.

Kudelski Security recruited her to be an apprentice when she was still attending Phoenix Coding Academy. Now a cybersecurity junior at Grand Canyon University, she works part-time for the company as a security analyst.

“So why go to college?” asked Dr. Cori Araza, GCU senior project director of K12 STEM Outreach.

Caballero said, “I’ve met so many people in so many different areas. … You might not NEED a degree (to reach your career goals in the field), but it will take you way longer if you don’t have it.”

Caballero was one four GCU student panelists who shared their experiences and gave college and career advice to high school students during GenCyber Day.

The event, held Friday on the GCU campus, was one of the preconference workshops of the NICE K12 Cybersecurity Education Conference, a national conference for cybersecurity educators that wraps up today in Phoenix and features several GCU staff and faculty speakers.

GCU technology students spoke on Friday about their internships, jobs and experiences as part of a GenCyber Day panel. The panel included (from left) Noemi Caballero, Megan Howell, Nestor Rios and Brendan Wooster.

When Araza and GCU’s K12 Educational Development team heard that the NICE conference – it stands for the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education – would be held in Phoenix this year, Araza suggested to GenCyber Day organizers, “You should host your preconference here.”

So GCU K12 Educational Development co-hosted the event with Tennessee Tech in collaboration with K12 NICE and GCU's Cyber Center of Excellence. Students from five STEM-underserved schools attended the day of panel talks, games of capture the flag and tours of the campus’ Esports Arena.

Araza worked hard to find rural and inner-city students who are underrepresented in the technology field to be a part of GenCyber Day.

That Caballero works in technology was more dream than reality.

Her mom wanted to be a teacher but didn’t have the resources to do so; her dad works in construction and helped build one of the campus’ apartment complexes, The Rivers.

The first-generation college student’s family moved back and forth between Mexico and Phoenix three times before finally settling here when she was in seventh grade so she could have a chance to make a better life for herself.

GCU took up the educational torch from her parents, awarding her a Students Inspiring Students scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship focused on helping students in west Phoenix schools near the University realize that promise of educational opportunity.

Caballero was ready to talk to the high school students at GenCyber Day, not just about the road to her job, but also about the transformative SIS scholarship.

Like Caballero, fellow panelist and sophomore cybersecurity major Megan Howell also already works in industry and is the first-ever woman on her team at Cisco.

She told the high schoolers at GenCyber Day, “We (women) are always going to be judged,” but nevertheless, “We desperately want you in the room with us.”

Only 8% of cybersecurity professionals are women. Women think differently, making judgments at times based on emotions, she said, which isn’t a bad thing. Diversity of thought is needed in cybersecurity.

Howell spoke a little about Women in Cybersecurity, or WICyS. The organization provides a support system for women rising up in the field.

Cybersecurity sophomore and Cisco intern Megan Howell (front) leads a group of high school students on GenCyber Day.

Cybersecurity senior Nestor Rios, another panelist, answered a question from Araza, the panel moderator. She wanted to know what panelists’ greatest challenge has been so far.

“It was, pretty much, asking questions,” Rios said. He was afraid to ask a professor a question because he thought everyone else around him knew the answer, though they didn’t.

Rios said of fellow panelist, senior IT major Brendan Wooster, “I remember Brendan three years ago. He was super quiet.” But after all the public speaking events that GCU encourages students to delve into as part of their capstone and other projects, students are prepared to get up in front of a crowd and speak.

Some other advice and insights:

From Wooster: “Be social.”

Howell said: “The people that you know are going to be way more important than the classes you take,” so make friends and build a strong support system. … “You need people speaking life into your life,” she said.

From Caballero: Always take care of your mental health; cybersecurity can be a stressful job.

From Rios: “Stay connected with your professors and adjuncts.”

Robert Mika, network security teacher at Phoenix's Trevor Browne High School, hoped that the almost one dozen students from his high school who attended GenCyber Day could relate to the GCU students on the panel who are not much older than them.

“Kids can relate to that, and hopefully it will motivate them,” he said, to seek a career in technology.

Davina Pruitt-Mentle

Events like GenCyber Day, he said, “open your eyes to what’s out there.”

Davina Pruitt-Mentle, the NICE academic engagement lead for the National Institute for Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce, added that events like GenCyber Day “help students see themselves in college.”

Pruitt-Mentle sparked the idea for what would become GenCyber Day at GCU.

She had attended a WICyS conference where a similar event was presented and asked, “Can you do something similar in Phoenix?”

“We found great partners with GCU to make this happen,” said Pruitt-Mentle, who added, “Hopefully we spark something” in the K12 students who attended. “ … It’s planting seeds.”

Eric Brown, Assistant Director for the Cybersecurity Education, Research and Outreach Center at Tennessee Tech, said that, ultimately, the GenCyber program is about trying to inform and inspire the next generation of cyber professionals.

“We’re trying to get middle and high school kids excited about cyber,” he said, which included making sure teachers left the event with a classroom set of Arduino boards.

As for students, after a day of panel talks and capture the flag competitions, it was off to GCU’s Esports Arena for a little gaming.

Chinle High School students and teachers attend GenCyber Day.

Sheridan Sells of Chinle High School, the largest high school in the Navajo Nation, sat down in a gaming chair and felt right at home.

The Esports Arena and GenCyber Day: “It’s great!” Sells said.

GCU Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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Related content:

GCU News: GCU sophomores take center stage at first Girls in Cyber event

GCU News: GCU storms minds of high schoolers with AI, cyber, Lego Mindstorm

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