Cyber security students draw attention of U.S. Department of Defense

Doug Perez of Los Angeles, left, and Nery Cabrera of Lexington are among six Information Networking and Telecommunications students at UNK who were contacted by the U.S. Department of Defense after winning the North Central Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

UNK experiencing high demand, success in tech industry

KEARNEY – When Angela Hollman answered her phone March 19 she was in for a surprise.

The defense department has been watching her collegiate team of six that recently won the North Central Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and qualified for the national stage in San Antonio April 24-26.

The defense department told Hollman they want to recruit the University of Nebraska at Kearney students. All of them.

“What about internships for the students who have a couple years left?” she demanded a little light-heartedly. Apparently, those can be arranged too.

Olivier Avande 2
Olivier Avande from Benin, West Africa, was on UNK’s first competing team – and winning team – of security/hackers at the North Central Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

The cyber defense competition was UNK’s first year competing and Hollman’s first year coaching the team how to handle hacking attempts and business injects thrown at them by a group of professional cyber security experts and consultants from companies such as TrustedSec and Raytheon.

Michael Odell of Alliance; Nery Cabrera and Jesus Moreno of Lexingon; Devin McIntyre of Odell (all in Nebraska); and Doug Perez from Los Angeles and Olivier Avande from Benin, West Africa, are UNK’s first competing team – and winning team – of security/hackers. They placed first in technical and second in business injects categories to win first place overall.

“It was literally like a scene out of an old, cliché movie,” said McIntyre, an Information Networking and Telecommunications minor. “We continually faced adversity with calm, collected action and stuck to our game plan. (To win) felt amazing.”

Moreno said it was stressful manning the firewall against attacks for so many hours, but he had confidence because of what he had learned in class.

“Dr. Hollman told us we already had the skills we needed to hold our own against the other teams who had already competed in the competition,” said Moreno, also an INT major. “She told us to stay calm and just have fun.”

Still, the six said they were nervous when they arrived at the competition. They contrasted their humble apparel and basic laptops with other teams, who they said were dressed in uniforms, acted confidently, and carried “lots of expensive-looking devices.”

Odell, a junior, recalled those first moments. “All I could think about was that I didn’t want our team to come in last and I kept asking Hollman, ‘What have you gotten us into?’’”

But Hollman wasn’t rattled.

“It’s all about the fundamentals and learning how to solve problems on the fly,” said Hollman, assistant professor of INT. “That’s what we teach in the INT program.”

Frontier UNK presentation
Frontier Communications recently gave $4,000 to UNK’s Information Networking and Telecom program for scholarships and summer internships. The check presented by Frontier marked the 15th year of the company’s partnership with UNK and pushed the total given to $60,000. Pictured from left to right: Angie Pacheco, Frontier medium accounts executive; Tim Obermier, INT department chair; Angela Hollman, INT assistant professor; Ron Tuttle, INT professor; and Shayne Zweiner, Frontier general manager for Nebraska.

UNK’s program is unique, said Adam Haeder, a Google employee who serves on the advisory board for Hollman’s program.

“No one else combines much needed components outside of computer programming like the INT program at UNK,” Haeder said.

Further, Hollman said Kearney is becoming known for its technology, chosen by President Obama in March as one of 21 communities in the nation to participate in a new national training effort to fill technology jobs.

“Kearney has kind of become the tech capital of rural Nebraska,” Hollman said. “Our tech sector growth out here in central Nebraska exploded long before the recent TechHire Initiative.”

And where there’s a need, support follows.

Two weeks after winning CCDC regionals, Frontier Communications stopped by the INT lab to present another check for $4,000 to the program. The company unveiled a new DSL connection in the lab that will allow INT students to set up simulations that would otherwise be too much of a security or resource liability if attempted on the campus network.

The check presented by Frontier marked the 15th year of financial assistance and pushed the total to $60,000 for program scholarships and summer internships.

Frontier is one of many companies lining up to help support the education of future tech employees in central Nebraska. In November, Kearney-based technology company Intellicom Computer Consulting donated $150,000 to the program in the form of cash, equipment and time. Dan Shundoff, president and CEO of Intellicom, said the donation is a smart investment.

“Collaborating with the university, especially within the INT program, felt right. We have the ability to build something special here and I wanted to take advantage of that,” said Shundoff.

CULTURE OF COLLABORATION

All the technology programs at UNK are outstanding, Hollman said, and she wants to help breed a culture of collaboration among students.

“If I have a student who really wants to focus on programming or on web design or business systems, then I’ll walk them down to computer science or multimedia, or Management Information Systems,” she explained. “And if those programs find a student who is passionate about networking or cyber security, then that student needs to hear what my program is about.”

A similar strategy of diversity and teamwork was apparent to anyone watching UNK’s students work together at the cyber defense competition. This successful tactic eventually resulted in the phone call from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although each of the six UNK members were either minoring or majoring in INT, Hollman said she specifically recruited those six students because of their diverse skill set across disciplines and their ability to work together.

“We were able to leverage students with programming skills, networking skills, server admin, all kinds of skills, regardless of whether or not they were majoring in or minoring in INT,” Hollman said. “My primary advice to the students going into the competition was to work together as one unit, focus only on fundamentals, and have fun, knowing that if they beat just one other team in their first year, they should feel very successful.”

Even before nationals, there is already talk about next year’s competition.

“There is a lot of demand to be on next year’s team already, but we realistically will only have a couple new spots open for that team,” said Hollman. “But, we still have seats open in the INT program and our door is open to visit with all motivated students who are interested in this field.

“All they have to do is call, email, or knock. We’ll be waiting.”

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Contact: Angela Hollman, assistant professor, Information Networking and Telecom, 308-865-8718, hollmanak@unk.edu

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