The Community College of Rhode Island’s new Cybersecurity associate degree program zeroes in on a course of study that is among the fastest-growing, highest-demand fields in the information technology sector.
The program is designed to provide students with a strong foundation in the principles and methods of cybersecurity, as well as knowledge and tools to apply security measures across a variety of network architectures and settings. It is built to prepare students who intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the field as well as industry professionals who want to upgrade their skills to meet the demands of their employers.
“This is a natural progression of what we have been doing and where the industry is going,” said Michael Kelly, chairman of CCRI’s Computer Studies and Information Processing Department.
The program has drawn strong interest in its first year of existence, buoyed in part by the unveiling last fall of the Rhode Island Cyber Range Initiative, which provides students a unique, hands-on testing environment with a virtual platform for cybersecurity modeling, simulation and job training for future cyber professionals.
The range was a primary reason Cybersecurity student Nigel Unarie chose CCRI.
“You need to be able to look, touch, see, feel and be able to do, versus just reading about it in a book,” Unarie said.
Unarie, who worked for more than a decade as an independent insurance claims adjuster, said insurance carriers now are starting to issue policies that cover cyberattacks.
“A natural progression for me is from licensed independent insurance adjuster to cyber insurance adjuster and investigator, which is why I chose CCRI,” he said.
While many of the classes in the cybersecurity program existed – CCRI has offered Intro to Cybersecurity and Intro to Computer Forensics for several years – they were not focused into a specific course of study. Existing programs will be tailored to mirror the objectives and spirit of the new program, Kelly said.
“We were already in this process and I think we hit it right as it was starting to pick up some steam,” Kelly said. “The beauty of it is we didn’t have to create many new courses.”
The program has naturally attracted students such as Shawn Houston, who graduated from CCRI in 2016 with an associate degree in Computer Networking. He is pursuing an associate degree in Cybersecurity and plans to enroll in a bachelor’s program in the field. Aside from the fact the field is growing, the West Greenwich resident said he based his decision on his previous experience at CCRI.
“I found the teachers were great and the courses were relevant,” Houston said. “I think it’ll be the same with cybersecurity, which is definitely a coveted degree.”
Kelly said not all students are looking to head right into a career. “Sometimes they are looking for transferability,” he said. “If we can create something that gives them both options then that’s huge.”
CCRI’s curriculum was based on National Security Agency standards for two-and four-year colleges and reviewed by industry experts from the public and private sectors.
CCRI is preparing an application to be named a National Security Agency National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense. The designation is awarded to schools that meet stringent criteria and map curricula to a core set of cyber defense knowledge units.
“We match the NSA units with what our curriculum should look like,” Kelly said. “It is pretty cool for us because it really is a multidisciplinary degree.”
A two-year cybersecurity degree from a NSA-recognized program is a solid foundation for employment or further study, Kelly said.
The curriculum includes a combination of general education, computer science and network technology courses to provide students with the knowledge, skills and training necessary for successful transition into a career in cybersecurity.
The program will also include a one-semester field study or internship program, which Kelly has been working on for several months.
“We think that is going to make someone more marketable if they can say, ‘I spent some actual time working in company X, Y or Z,’” Kelly said. “Any way we can help a student be more marketable, we want to do it.”
In developing the program, CCRI worked with the nonprofit Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, which has been a partner in conducting training focused on CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ technical certifications.
Several CCRI students like Houston have successfully participated in the internship program at SENEDIA. Houston credited SENEDIA and CCRI with helping him land an internship at Middletown-based McLaughlin Research Corp., which recently offered him a full-time position.
“When I started at McLaughlin I had proof I could do the things they needed me to do,” Houston said.
The new Cybersecurity degree program should lead to more students participating with internships, said Molly Donohue Magee, executive director of SENEDIA.
“The Community College of Rhode Island’s associate degree program in Cybersecurity is an important tool in meeting the cybersecurity workforce needs of Rhode Island companies,” Donohue Magee said. “SENEDIA appreciates our close working partnership with CCRI focused on building the future cybersecurity workforce for Rhode Island.”