The email was from Elke Leeds, the College of IT Academic Vice President at WGU. It detailed Cyber FastTrack, a competition by the highly reputable SANS Institute. The competition was open for students and recent grads and focused on cybersecurity. When Ryan read that there was also scholarship money available along with incredible learning opportunities in cybersecurity, he had to jump in.
“Having just graduated from WGU I didn't want to lose any momentum,” he says. “I took all that extra time that I had previously used to work on my WGU courses and poured 100% of it into Cyber FastTrack.”
Cyber FastTrack is a series of games, courses, and quizzes to help participants learn and demonstrate skills in cybersecurity. At the end of every round, top competitors got to continue to the next cybersecurity round. Ryan was surprised as he kept advancing through the course due to the difficult nature of the cybersecurity tasks, but enjoyed his time working on the competition even though some of the challenges were frustrating and full of new cybersecurity material to learn.
“Funny enough, I became pretty addicted to the challenges because of how much fun they were, and I was a bit sad when they were all done,” he admits.
As the cybersecurity competition came to an end, Ryan received certifications, and waited anxiously to see if he’d won a scholarship.
Another email told him that he had won a scholarship, a life-changing moment. Though he’d just graduated from WGU with a degree in cybersecurity, the scholarship money is vital in helping him receiving additional cybersecurity training.
“SANS training is highly regarded as the highest quality and one of the most valuable training bodies in both fields,” he says. “If I'm going to run with the big dogs one day so-to-speak, I need to make sure that I've done the necessary foundational studies to hang with them. I didn't have enough left on my GI Bill to afford their training on my own, so this scholarship is exactly what I was looking for.”
Ryan is just one of 19 WGU students who won a scholarship in Cyber FastTrack, the most winners of any school that participated in the cybersecurity competition. WGU also boasted nine students out of just 24 who got perfect scores leading into the semi-finals.
Jennifer Reed is another winner who said that she found an obsession with cybersecurity that she won’t be letting go anytime soon.
“I ended up pouring over the content, staying up late, talking my husband's ears off, and realizing that I was pretty obsessed, in a good way,” she laughs.
Jennifer says getting a SANS Institute certificate and scholarship will be a great addition to her resume, and has given her the confidence she needs to continue to pursue her dreams in cybersecurity.
Ryan says he’s not at all surprised that 19 WGU students won scholarships in the competition.
“Cyber FastTrack is a voluntary, self-driven competition,” he explained. “No professors are going to assign it as homework and hold your hand through all three stages of the competition. The only college that I know of that teaches you to teach yourself and rewards self-motivation is WGU. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of similarities between accelerating at WGU and ‘accelerating’ at Cyber FastTrack that it felt completely natural to keep pushing through the competition at a breakneck pace,” he says.
Jennifer agrees, adding, “All stages of the competition were timed or had deadlines, and I used what I've learned at WGU to stay consistent and work through the modules, while keeping up with working on my degree and my family life.”
Beyond WGU giving students the habits they need to succeed in this kind of competition, it also provides students with specific skills that are beneficial for their future. WGU’s cybersecurity programs are the perfect step to a future career, and WGU graduates work in a variety of positions for large companies including AT&T, U.S. Department of Defense, Google, U.S. Air Force, and Verizon.
Ryan and Jennifer, along with the other scholarship winners, are thrilled about the cybersecurity opportunities that are ahead of them. New cybersecurity courses and training, and doors to opportunities are wide open to them. Ryan is in the military and has done cybersecurity work for the United States Airforce. He says his goals are to continue to learn and work toward vulnerability testing or developing new security software.
Jennifer still isn’t sure where her path will take her, but she’s loving learning and knows that something in cybersecurity is in her future. She says that she felt lost and aimless before, and now she knows that she made the right choice with cybersecurity, and with WGU.
“WGU students just feel different to me,” she concludes. “We're more motivated, more driven. We have to be on top of it, stay organized, stay consistent, and stay driven to succeed. Not everyone can hold themselves accountable like that, but you've got to do it to succeed at WGU. In my opinion, it's those skills and traits that helped WGU students succeed and outshine other universities in this competition.”