It’s rare to find someone who is as passionate about their career as Sarah ‘Mic’ Merritt is. She’s a U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant, serving as a one of the few female elite Air Force cyber operators. She is also currently the only active-duty female cyber instructor for the Air Force.
These high-profile military and technical opportunities came to Mic through her hard work, experience, and education. But advancing her own career is only part of her mission; increasingly, she’s creating pathways for other women to join her.
Even as one of a few women serving in the Air Force, Mic says her team has made her service incredible. When asked what part of her service she’s the most proud of, Mic smiles through tears and says “I can’t answer that question. I’m absolutely proud to be an Airman.”
Mic acknowledges that women represent only a small part of military service, and a smaller part of cybersecurity.
Mic says that to succeed she needs to be bold, fearless, and never give up. She encourages girls to speak their mind without worrying how it will come across to find success.
She wants more girls to get involved in STEM fields, and spends her time volunteering to help encourage these girls. “I'm tired of being surrounded by men when I know there are women out there that can do just as well or better in this career field,” she laughs.
Mic looked up to teachers and women around her as she grew up. She knows many girls face the obstacle of being told they aren’t good enough or smart enough to pursue certain jobs, especially STEM roles.
Since a very young age, it seemed that Mic was on a path that would lead her to inspire and help other girls find their own bright future.
Mic was only 7 years old when she began on her IT path. At this age Mic’s uncle gave her an old computer. She spent all her time learning about it, and figuring out how it worked. “I learned the BASIC programming language and would write all kinds of small, simple programs to run on that computer,” she recalls. “I was and still am incredibly curious and I think that's a fundamental skill for success in cyber.”
“My job didn’t exist,” she says with a laugh. She was always interested in computers, puzzles, and math, but there wasn’t specific training for cyber security or cyber warfare. . . yet.
As she grew, her life went in a law enforcement direction, and after joining the Air Force, Mic initially was part of the military police.
“I enjoyed the role, but often found myself helping others with the computers as more and more of them came online,” Mic says.
She was able to apply for and move into a role doing system administration, and her technology career took off. She’s never looked back.
After working for many years in the military and cyber security industry, Mic decided she wanted to pursue her master’s degree. The issue was, with a military career, an online education was one of her only options for pursuing a degree.
In a field like cyber security that is always changing and growing, Mic says that continual education is crucial for success.
With the help of a master’s degree, Mic says she’s able to feel confident and authoritative in her work. From her high-profile work with cyber warfare, to her crucial time spent teaching the next generations about security, her degree has enhanced her abilities.
“I was able to put a degree together with 20 years of experience, so I now have both the education and the employment background to take on any role I want,” she says. “When I'm working with students, I can give them both the practical experience viewpoint and the academic viewpoint. I can better explain difficult concepts because I understand the fundamentals of how one learns, how I learned.”
Today, Mic’s life looks the same as many civilian lives. She wakes up, goes to work and spends the day there teaching and training students on cyber security. But that can be extremely challenging, because like her high school experience, the jobs they may hold someday aren’t the ones they’re being trained for.
“The students I train today are facing something similar to what I faced. The jobs they're going to work in don't exist today. We don't know what the future holds.
"So, how do you train someone for that future? This is a fast changing field.” She says her job requires her to constantly research, listen to podcasts or read blogs and articles to ensure she knows what is ahead.
Mic not only works as an instructor in the military service, but is a volunteer for middle school kids with robotics and other STEM programs. She says helping get the younger generation excited about these fields will help lead them to impactful futures.
Mic says her long-term goals are to continue to work with younger generations, and particularly girls, to help them understand that they can have a future working in cyber and other technological career paths. She says that continual study is crucial to help her and others keep up with this ever-changing field.
The best advice Mic has? She wipes tears from her eyes as she says, “My favorite quote is ‘Don’t dream it, be it.’ And that’s the best advice. Just be it. Whatever it is you want to do, whatever it is you want to accomplish in life, go be that.”
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