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UMGC Global Media Center
See Yourself in Cyber: How UMGC Leads in Closing the Diversity Gap

Editor's Note:  This is the fourth in a series of four articles featured on the UMGC Global Media Center during Cybersecurity Awareness Month.

This year’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month campaign theme —“See Yourself in Cyber”— is a reminder that while cybersecurity may seem like a complex technical area, ultimately, it’s really all about people and the decisions they make at home and at work.

But what if you can’t see yourself in cyber, as happens with many women and minorities, both underrepresented in the field? According to hiring site, Zippia, just 25 percent of technology employees are women, even though they make up half the population; 7 percent are Black, in spite of being 14 percent of the total U.S. population; and 8 percent are Latinx, despite accounting for over 18 percent of the population as a whole. Looking specifically at cybersecurity, only 4 percent of cybersecurity workers self-identify as Hispanic, 9 percent as Black and 24 percent as women, according to a recent report by The Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub.

While the country lags in hiring minorities for tech jobs, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) has emerged as a leader in educating them. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, the preeminent source of news, information and commentary on diversity in U.S. higher education, ranked UMGC No. 1 in granting master’s degrees to minority students in the area of information technology.

In its most recent “Top 100 Degree Producers” rankings of institutions that confer degrees to minority students, Diverse put UMGC in the No. 1 spot for IT master’s degrees. The rankings are based on analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Set for 2018-2019. During that time period, 758 minority students—474 men and 284 women—received UMGC graduate degrees in IT

What’s the secret sauce? How does UMGC remove the barriers that prevent people from entering the tech sector and “seeing themselves in cyber?”

Part of the strategy is to foster a more diverse overall enrollment. During the time period studied by Diverse, minority students constituted 52 percent of total enrollment at UMGC. Today, that figure is around 54 percent. UMGC ranks first in Maryland in conferring cybersecurity and information technology degrees to women and students of color.

“There are multiple factors that contribute to UMGC’s leadership in educating diverse, underrepresented and historically excluded populations,” said Doug Harrison, vice president and dean of the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology. UMGC is, by mission and mandate, the open-access university for the state of Maryland, which means it does not put up many of the barriers to admission in higher education that research consistently shows has a disproportionately negative impact on minorities’ access to college. At the same time, serving the military has been part of UMGC’s genetic code since its founding 75 years ago, and the military has long served as a pathway to economic, social and educational mobility for minority and underrepresented populations.

“UMGC also emphasizes a real-world, scenario- and problem-based approach to learning that maximizes credit for prior learning in and out of college to ensure that the widest possible diversity of students can find a place for themselves in our programs,” said Harrison.

One important first step toward lifting barriers is to infuse cybersecurity into every facet of society, at all age levels, technical and non-technical.

“Everyone can become cyber aware if we all understand what part we play in securing our nation’s assets,” said Loyce Best Pailen, senior director of the Center for Security Studies at UMGC. Pailen also works to incorporate a diversity of perspectives in her work with students.

“I strive to help people who may view cybersecurity differently because of age, ethnicity or gender become more interested in careers that help fill the cyber workforce gap,” she said.

Jenneh Lawson

UMGC alumna Jenneh Lawson took an approach to cybersecurity that had an unusual beginning, one that put her on a non-technical path. Her undergraduate degree is in communications studies with a minor in biology from Towson University. She was working as a marketer with a small company in Rockville, Maryland, in 2018 when the European Union announced that companies doing business in the region needed to comply with General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR), the world’s toughest data privacy law.

“When the policy came out, I was put on a special core team to help migrate our data to a platform that was compliant,” Lawson said. “I found that I really liked dealing with privacy and security issues. I quit my job and started studying on my own to get certifications.”

Lawson, who graduated from UMGC in 2022 with an M.S. in Cybersecurity, credits her UMGC coursework for her career success. Not only did she learn about digital forensics and other nuts-and-bolts skills that a security engineer needs, but she also learned about the business side of security.

“I learned ways we can have program development and do security and be cost effective,” she said. “And I was taught at UMGC how to explain technical jargon to a nontechnical audience. I do a lot of that for my job now because we sit between engineers and lawyers and interact with breach investigators.”

UMGC also provides support beyond the classroom so students can see themselves in cyber. The university’s cyber competition team, for example, has historically provided skill-based experience and helped students network with prospective employers, who often sponsor events.

When Taj Bradley, a minority student and recent UMGC graduate, was in high school, cybersecurity didn’t seem like a feasible path. “I didn’t have mentors to guide me along my cybersecurity journey,” he said. “Once at UMGC, what I learned from the cyber competition team helped me gain hands-on experience and networking opportunities that help me land a job in cybersecurity.”

Bradley went on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Computer Networks and Cybersecurity at UMGC in 2021. Today, after 10 years in law enforcement, he works in the cybersecurity field as a penetration tester.

Combating the proliferation of cyberattacks worldwide is best met with a cybersecurity workforce that is growing and diverse—a workforce that embraces diversity of race, gender, socioeconomics, culture and thought is better positioned to respond to today’s array of threats.