Editor’s note: This story was written by Alexander Gates, National Security Agency security education academic liaison to RIT, and Brian Haynes ’82 (computational mathematics), retired NSA senior executive. To provide anonymity, the names of NSA employees have not been revealed.
Every day RIT graduates make the nation a safer place as employees of the National Security Agency. Equipped with technical training and hands-on experience acquired at RIT, coupled with a passion for excellence, they immediately apply skills critical to national security and defense in cyberspace.
The story begins much earlier, however, than day one on the job at NSA, and represents only one link in a network of initiatives that connect RIT with one of the country’s most elite intelligence agencies.
The NSA and RIT partnership is shaped by formal programs and initiatives designed to prepare students to meet the nation’s cybersecurity needs, keep the talent pipeline primed, share expertise and serve as vehicles for growth for both partners. RIT’s accreditation under two signature NSA-sponsored programs in particular—National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense Education and the Campus Ambassador Program—serve as gateways to opportunities for graduates, as well as avenues for cooperative engagement on solving issues facing the country.
The National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense Education program, sponsored jointly by NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, aims to improve the United States’ ability to address cybersecurity needs through training and education programs. RIT’s ongoing curricula development, to include specializations in forensics, malware and secure software development, contributed to the institute earning this accreditation.
Under the NSA Campus Ambassador Program, an NSA recruiter is designated as the single primary liaison between the agency and the college or university to increase recruitment efforts and establish a larger footprint on the campus. Currently awarded to only 15 colleges/universities nationwide, RIT secured this recognition based on the large number of RIT students in critical need disciplines, the close relationship maintained by RIT professors and staff with the agency and sizeable pool of RIT alumni employed by NSA. The benefits of the NSA/RIT partnership extend to broader initiatives designed to help students nationwide improve cybersecurity skills. For the past two years, RIT has developed, scored and administered elective modules for the annual Cyber Defense Exercise. This competition tests the ability of cadets and midshipmen representing U.S. and Canadian military service academies to build, secure and defend networks from simulated cyber attacks mounted by NSA experts.
RIT has been providing the “best of the best” to NSA for many years in the form of cooperative education, internships and full-time employment. The numbers bear witness to the level of satisfaction experienced by RIT students at NSA—more than 90 percent of cooperative education students return to work full-time.
Recent RIT graduates note commitment to serving the country, in addition to the personal fulfillment knowing that they are contributing to U.S. national security. A 2011 graduate offered some thoughts on the role he has played in national security.
“I have deployed three times to warzones across the globe to make sure our troops have the ability to access vital intelligence, call for help when they need it, and prevent terrorist attacks. I love working in this sort of environment because it allows me to use my strengths to contribute in meaningful ways to protect everyone against those who would seek to do harm. It has really reinforced my faith in my country and the people who fight for its ideals.”
A 2011 alumna admits that deciding to work at NSA was almost by accident.
“I had always expected to end up on the West Coast, working on software at the likes of Google or Microsoft. But an NSA recruiter came by one day ‘looking for hackers’—not even at the career fair, mind you, just a chance meeting as a professor was showing her around—and I was immediately interested. One year later, I was raising my right hand to give my oath of service, and I’ve never looked back.”
For some alumni, testing the waters in both government and private sectors helped to tilt the decision wheel in favor of NSA, as acknowledged by an RIT alumnus with three years of NSA experience.
“Before I worked for NSA I held a plethora of jobs. Every day it was the same thing over and over. Working for NSA I have traveled the world, encountering many different people and all sorts of problems and situations. Every day brings something new. At the end of the day I go home happy because my job isn’t making someone else money…it’s making sure the folks back at home are safe.”
RIT graduates are also quick to attribute their success at NSA, at least in part, to the education they received. According to a 2013 graduate with a double major in computing security and applied networking and systems administration, “The wide variety of skills and knowledge I learned at RIT has set me apart from other interns and even some full-time employees. I did not just learn about network engineering or computer security or systems administration, I learned about all three. On top of that, RIT classes provided numerous hands-on lab experiences to enhance learning in all of these areas.”