UTEP to Advance Cybersecurity Talent Pipeline with $4M Grant

Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of Computer Science, left, oversees the program and is seen here counseling David Reyes, a doctoral candidate who has been part of the SFS program since its inception.

The University of Texas at El Paso will enhance the capacity of the regional and national cybersecurity workforce, thanks to a renewed commitment from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). UTEP’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) program, designed to prepare cybersecurity professionals who can improve the nation’s security and economic competitiveness, has received a $4 million grant from NSF and DHS.

UTEP’s original SFS program started in 2016 and has produced 30 graduates, all of whom have secured jobs in the cybersecurity sector with governmental entities.

“This renewal award will support over 35 graduate students in computer science (CS) and software engineering who will enter the government workforce with the knowledge and skills to transfer state-of-the-art cybersecurity techniques and approaches into practice,” said Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of Computer Science.

The renewal of the CyberCorps scholarships program at UTEP will result in the support of highly qualified students, with an emphasis on Hispanic and female students. With the original and the new SFS program, the CS department at UTEP has supported 39 students, with 39% of those students being females and 85% Hispanic. 

David Reyes, a doctoral candidate in computer science, has been part of the SFS program since its inception.

“It has been an amazing opportunity,” Reyes said. “Before this program, I was a teaching assistant. So, it was sometimes difficult having to grade exams and keep up with my own course work. Now, I can focus completely and dedicate my time directly on my studies.”

SFS Scholars receive full tuition, $6,000 for travel, research materials and supplies, a laptop, books, professional training and certifications, and an annual stipend ($34,000 as graduate students and $25,000 as undergraduates). In return, they commit to serving in a government cybersecurity position for a time period equal to the number of years funded by the program.

“If you are really interested in cybersecurity and you want to learn new things and do some interesting work and have a passion for it, you should definitely apply,” said Reyes, who is scheduled to graduate in December 2022.

“UTEP is uniquely positioned to contribute to efforts to improve diversity in the cybersecurity workforce due to the population it serves, which includes Hispanic, first generation, and lowest income quartile students,” Salamah said.

Over the past five years, UTEP has made significant advances in the development of cybersecurity educational programs, research and outreach activities. These efforts have resulted in several high-profile recognitions including designation by the National Security Agency as a Center of Academic Excellence in both Cyber Defense and Cyber Operations — only one of 21 throughout the nation — as well as designation as an Army Research Lab-South remote campus in cybersecurity.

The central role of software in the operation of defense, energy, communication, transportation and manufacturing systems makes it increasingly important that these systems are designed in a way that integrates cybersecurity principles, Salamah explained.

UTEP’s SFS scholars take part in rigorous educational programs and complement the knowledge gained in the classroom with significant involvement in cybersecurity research, training, competitions and hands-on activities. They are also required to engage in service to the community to build cybersecurity awareness and capabilities among UTEP students and beyond.

The goals of the UTEP SFS program are:

  • Recruit and retain at least 30 students into UTEP’s Master of Science in Software Engineering and the doctoral computer science programs.
  • Graduate students who will enter the workforce with the ability to transfer state-of-the-art cybersecurity techniques and approaches into practice.
  • Place students in government positions that utilize their knowledge and capabilities in cybersecurity, with a focus on placing graduates in federal/executive entities.
  • Advance cybersecurity awareness and competencies among K-12 students and educators.
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