My Journey Into Cybersecurity
Submitted by: Haya Arfat

In 11th grade, I figured out that computer science was what I wanted to pursue after taking AP Computer Science in school. My prior year of learning drag and drop JavaScript was dull, but this new introductory course on Java brought my interest in computer science back to life.  I joined the computer club and participated in programming competitions, learning new algorithms, and joyfully wracking my brain for solutions to challenges. I even got the opportunity to add a new plaque on my CS teacher’s wall: 1st place, Novice Division in a local high school competition.

Near the end of my junior year,  a Google Classroom notification from my teacher popped up on my phone. It was a link she had posted onto our class page, which took me to a cybersecurity site. SANS Girls Go Cyberstart, (now known as CyberStart America) is an online training game that teaches girls about cybersecurity, ethical hacking, computer forensics, and so on by having them compete in teams,  doing challenges that teach them cybersecurity principles to collect points. The top 3 teams in your state with the most points move on to a national 48-hour jeopardy style competition for scholarships.  I was intrigued and asked my teacher to let me start a team for our school. I found 4 other girls to meet the requirements, and we played. It was kind of exhilarating, the rush of decoding steganography, SQL injecting, learning to SSH.  We moved onto nationals in May, and I was awarded a scholarship as one of the top 10 individual scorers in Texas.

Cybersecurity was something I never considered before this competition. I knew computer science was what my future degree would be in, but as for what I’d do with that degree, I had no idea. This competition awarded me more than just a scholarship, it dropped a plausible career path into my lap, one that I immediately knew I’d enjoy.

Summer of 2019, I was volunteering at a fundraising event for a nonprofit  whose high school leadership program I ran. While cleaning up a check-in table at the end of the luncheon, I overheard the nonprofit’s Chief Operating Officer and Head of IT discussing internships. The Head of IT was talking about considering high school interns in addition to the college ones they normally employ. He explained that college students usually had to start from scratch when interning with him, and learned as they dealt with issues on the fly. Since not much prior experience was necessary, why not allow some older high school students to intern? My interest in their conversation was picked up on by the COO, who introduced me to the Head of IT as a viable intern. One business card,  a few emails, and three weeks later I started my first day as an IT intern. I spent around 6 weeks of my summer working in their IT department, which was set up a bit different from most businesses. The nonprofit’s staff is comprised entirely of women, and has only one male worker: the Head of IT (also the only IT person there before I started work). He was a contractor who typically visited the office once a week to go through all the IT ticket requests, meaning there wasn’t a formal IT department on-site (a.k.a the reason my desk was in a spare corner, although a corner with much access to the copier).

After telling my boss that I was interested in cybersecurity, I was given 3 main projects during my time there. The first was to keep a log of every computer containing it’s users, pending Windows updates, security application expiry dates, and general troubleshooting requests. This proved harder than expected since the majority of the office workers come in on varying days and times, and many computers had information I was legally required to not have access to. My second project was to help revamp a website of one of their ventures. I researched hosting, using WordPress, good plug-ins, themes in our price range, etc. and helped the communications department put together a new website pitch for the nonprofit’s board. My final project was helping install dual monitors for the entire finance department, which required: searching through storage for compatible monitors in good condition, ordering conversion cables, and assembling the monitor stands.

Besides these projects, I helped a lot of the staff (mainly the office administrator) get accustomed to using Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and Forms were some of the powerful tools I studied to help the staff with their inquiries about using them. I recently learned that my insistence for the nonprofit’s youth leadership program that I lead to have access to Microsoft 365 and the research I provided on its uses during my internship are what helped the nonprofit hit the ground running with the online shift during the quarantine. Share your love of tech, you never know who might find your knowledge handy!

I had a great time working there, with my boss giving me a ton of advice for college and for my career. I had expressed an interest in cybersecurity from the start so throughout my internship I learned about security measures that an organization like this nonprofit would take. On my last day, my boss recommended I get CISCO cybersecurity certifications while I’m in college along with continuing to get work experience. He told me it was a great way to stand out in the job market since it shows I have hard skills relating to cybersecurity beyond  what my college classes teach, and because CISCO provides opportunities like full-time jobs to those that do well in their courses.

The following school year I took the class Honors Advanced Data Structures and Algorithms, my final high school course on Java. I was also the first cybersecurity officer for my school’s computer science club, and I helped other students gain exposure to cybersecurity by organizing teams for PicoCTF, CyberPatriot, Lockheed Martin Cyberquest, and Girls Go CyberStart. The team I captained placed in the silver division for Cyberpatriot, and the GGCS school team quadrupled, from last year’s 5 girls to around 20 for the GGCS 2020 competition. This was also our second time in a row making it to nationals!

Almost everything I’ve mentioned above was sparked by Girls Go CyberStart. It introduced me to cybersecurity, and showed me how fun and engaging CTFs are, which inspired me to learn more. It’s really not an exaggeration for me to say that GGC changed my life. I’ve met so many people and learned so much since I did my first GGC competition. Even my college decision was based on the fact that Texas A&M has many opportunities for someone interested in cybersecurity.  I’m now a freshman in college at TAMU studying engineering,and planning on minoring in cybersecurity, and a member of my school’s Cyber Club and WiCyS chapter.

In the beginning of my freshman fall semester, I responded to an email asking me about my experience with Girls Go Cyberstart and receiving one of their first scholarships. My response about the program was insightful enough that I received an award from SANS for providing useful feedback, and was requested by Alan Paller, the founder and director of SANS and the SANS Institute, to do a few press interviews regarding the competition as it was now expanding and being relaunched as CyberStart America, open to all high schoolers across the US. After having a great time speaking to some amazing cybersecurity journalists, I was asked by Alan if I had any ideas for getting the word out about CyberStart America. I suggested using the College Board’s AP CS Opportunities newsletter, and was asked to facilitate this partnership between College Board and SANS.

After I finished this project in January of this year, I was offered a job working for Alan and David Brown of the  National Cyber Scholarship Foundation, on developing  a program called  Cyber FastTrack. Their goal with Cyber FastTrack was to rapidly eliminate the cybersecurity skills gap in the United States by providing scholarships for thousands of college students who have an innate talent for cybersecurity to pursue high-level training as an onramp to a career in the industry.

My biggest suggestion for this program was to allow college students free access to CyberStart Game, because I noticed that my school’s cyber club was split between novices who had little to no experience in cybersecurity, and advanced students who already had years of experience under their belt. I thought that incorporating a learning aspect into the program would enable these less experienced students to build their skillset and feel more confident in competing for scholarships. The exciting and engaging learning aspect of Girls Go Cyberstart was what really drew me in, and I had a feeling CyberStart Game would do the same to these college students.

With my new role as the Scholarship Assistance Director, I was authorized to give our free licenses to colleges so that they could access CyberStart Game. After cold calling (cold emailing?) around 200 schools with the message below, I asked Alan and David about an organization I saw listed as a supporter of one of our scholarship programs: WiCyS. I got to talk to Dr. Ambareen Siraj and Lynn Dohm, who I’m incredibly grateful to as they were a huge help in spreading my message about CyberFastTrack and the licenses to their WiCyS network. I had a great time speaking to the WiCyS chapter leads and hosting a webinar with Lynn (don’t worry about missing it, there’s another one next Thursday the 18th! :))

“Hi,

My name is Haya Arfat and I’m the Cybersecurity Scholarship Assistance Director for the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation, as well as a computer science student at Texas A&M University. I want to introduce you to an amazing cybersecurity scholarship opportunity for your club members and other students at your school that the Foundation and SANS are co-sponsoring. It’s called Cyber FastTrack

Cyber FastTrack is a free, online scholarship competition created by experts at the SANS Institute. Cyber FastTrack is a 2-day Capture-the-Flag competition, with the chance to win one of 400 $1,000 cash scholarships and up to $21k of certified professional cybersecurity training that makes your resume more desirable for employers. Our goal is to rapidly eliminate the cybersecurity skills gap in the United States by providing scholarships for thousands of college students who have an innate talent for cybersecurity to pursue high-level training as an onramp to a career in the industry.

We are offering college and university cybersecurity leaders the ability to give away up to 250 free licenses to CyberStart Game to your members and any other interested students to help them prepare for the Cyber FastTrack scholarship competition. CyberStart Game is a gamified learning platform comprised of over 200 interactive challenges that teach students about cryptography, web exploitation, social engineering, steganography, XSS, SQL injection, python, and much more. Beginners with no experience can use CyberStart to build up their skills from scratch, while more experienced students can further hone their craft through the advanced levels. I myself discovered cybersecurity through CyberStart, and it’s what inspired me to enter this field! I think you could also gain new club members as students at your school play CyberStart Game, discover that cybersecurity is really interesting and that they are pretty good at it.

CyberStart Game uses fun scenarios to take complex topics and make them accessible and engaging and immerses you into real-world cybersecurity challenges. Its hands-on labs help you to develop transferable skills that are desired and recognized by employers. Learn more about what topics CyberStart covers here.

Your club can request 250 free licenses for CyberStart, normally priced at $150 apiece, for your school.  Please reach out to me for access to these licenses, as well as with any questions you have at haya@nationalcyberscholarship.org.”

Over the past month or so, I’ve talked to students, professors, and faculty from over 100 schools and given out over 21,500 free licenses to CyberStart Game, and I hope to give out many more in the time remaining until CyberFastTrack’s registration deadline,  as well as continue to develop cybersecurity opportunities for college students in the long run. Yesterday I attended my WiCyS chapter meeting and learned about the Scholarship for Service and DoD Cybersecurity Scholarship programs. I’m excited to apply and see where my journey with cybersecurity takes me next.

Please note:  the last date that students can register for the Cyber FastTrack competition is March 31st even though they may continue preparing all the way to April 5.