A partnership between the new U.S. Naval Community College and University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is providing a pathway for active-duty sailors, marines and Coast Guard personnel and reservists to pursue an associate degree that can lead to advanced work in cybersecurity.
Already, several USNCC students have taken an online introductory course known as PACE (Program and Career Exploration) offered by UMGC that lays out the opportunities available in cybersecurity and what it takes to earn a degree and succeed in the field.
“It is important that we have a high-quality cybersecurity degree program that our sailors, marines and Coast Guardsmen know will help them do their jobs better today and into the future,” said USNCC President Randi R. Cosentino, when the school launched a second pilot phase with UMGC in February. “This is why we chose an institution that has demonstrated a history of excellence working with military students and the cybersecurity community.”
UMGC has been educating active-duty military personnel since shortly after World War II at bases around the world. Now known for its virtual learning pedagogy, it has developed a variety of technical and management and policy-oriented cybersecurity degree programs.
What sets UMGC apart from many universities is its faculty. Courses are taught by adjunct professors who often also maintain careers in the fields they teach. In the fast-moving cybersecurity profession, these practitioners know what is happening now and keep their students abreast of the changes to certification requirements.
One of UMGC’s cybersecurity instructors is Yawar Shams, who has taught economics at universities in his native Bangladesh and the United States. He now manages geophysical analytics for UMGC’s data analytics startup company, HelioCampus, while teaching as an adjunct.
“Throughout UMGC’s history, we have had a lot of collaboration with the U.S. armed forces, so we understand the needs of military students,” Shams said. “There are rules about what we can and cannot do during their deployment. UMGC has a sophisticated system to facilitate these students’ experience. That makes a seamless transition for us to work well with USNCC.”
The Navy established USNCC in 2019 as part of its Education for Seapower strategy to advance off-duty voluntary education that aligns with its warfighting capability needs.
Students in the UMGC-USNCC pilot program will gain the skills needed for highly sought-after cybersecurity jobs and a degree that opens doors as they advance in their careers. While the program leads to an associate degree in cybersecurity, it provides an academic breadth and rigor that can be leveraged toward a bachelor’s degree at UMGC, according to Keith Hauk, associate vice president of the university’s Department of Stateside Military Operations.
William McBorrough has been working in the cybersecurity field for 20 years. He now runs his own cybersecurity risk-management company, which uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based solutions to manage cybersecurity programs. He said is always looking for qualified people to work on his projects.
McBorrough also is an adjunct professor in the Informational Systems Department at UMGC and teaches the introductory PACE course. He has taught in traditional colleges where most students are 18 to 21 years old, but said he has an “affinity” for adult learners because they are more focused on their studies and know their career goals.
The PACE course allows him to work one-on-one with new students to help them understand “how they can get from here to there.”
Many students, even on the graduate level, are not clear what they want to do within the cybersecurity field, McBorrough said. Cybersecurity has a number of specialties that require their own set of knowledge, skills and abilities. Unless students know where they are heading, they can waste time taking unnecessary courses.
He counsels students to develop “a concise set of skills so you are ready to go on day one and provide immediate value.”
Letty Diai, a professional accountant and controller for 25 years, also teaches PACE to incoming cybersecurity students.
“I like to motivate students,” she said. “I think of each and every one of them as my child or my children—what would I tell my daughter if she called me at 2 a.m. and told me calculus is so difficult?”
In the first week of classes, every student is excited, Diai said, but by week four doubts begin to surface and some students think of dropping a class.
“I always tell them, remember that first day of class and what you told me that brought you here—the support of your spouse, you want to make your parents proud, you want a new career with extra money. Just keep that in mind and push ahead,” Diai said.
To be eligible for the cybersecurity training, applicants must be on active duty, in good service standing, have earned a high school diploma or equivalent, not be within three months of service separation and satisfy the admissions requirements for both USNCC and UMGC.
The flexible study program consists of eight-week, online courses that can be completed whether ashore or at sea. Tuition is paid by USNCC, which includes fees and course materials, allowing the students to save their military tuition assistance, GI Bill benefits and other education aid entitlements.
Students who complete the coursework will earn an associate degree from UMGC, as well as a career-relevant computer networking certificate. (While the USNCC is pursuing accreditation, UMGC will be the primary degree grantor for this associate degree program, ensuring the service members who graduate from this program receive a transferable degree from an accredited institution.)
Graduates will have the opportunity to seamlessly continue studying toward a bachelor’s degree at UMGC.
McBorrough said he has noticed the USNCC students who have completed the PACE course have an advantage of being part of a structured program that many other students don’t have.
“The Naval Community College provides help for those students to succeed,” he said. “While the PACE course gives them a lot of that structure, the students arriving through this partnership already have a lot of it figured out.”