SOUTH PORTLAND ⁠— Despite limited resources and few staffers, the Cyber Security program at Southern Maine Community College is being recognized for academic excellence in preparing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Wendy Plourde, chairwoman and founder of the Cyber Security Program at Southern Maine Community College, goes over the syllabus with students on the first day of classes Aug. 27. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

The U.S. National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security notified SMCC Aug. 9 that it has been designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education through 2024.

“It was huge for us, getting that designation, because it will bring in a lot more students,” program founder and Chairwoman Wendy Plourde said in an interview Aug. 27. “There will never be enough trained professionals to combat the number of attacks happening, but each student we educate goes on to educate others, and that’s important.”

The college, Plourde said, offers an Associate in Applied Science degree, with classes covering topics such as network security, ethical hacking and information security.

As the only full-time instructor for the 5-year-old program, she said finding professionals with the right educational background to teach has been difficult not just for SMCC, but for colleges across the country. Currently, she explained, there are only three adjunct instructors in the program, two of whom live out-of-state.

“Given the nature of these courses, it can be difficult to find staff … it’s a balancing act here,” she explained. “It’s a very specific level of expertise, it takes a lot of time to learn this information. I think it says a lot that we were given this national award working with such limited resources.”

As one of only two programs in Maine, the other being at the University of Maine in Augusta, Plourde said the program has seen a steady increase in student enrollment over the years. In 2014, only six students enrolled in courses. This fall, she said, there are more than 80 students registered.

“It’s frustrating because our 100-level classes are full and we’re over-enrolling them trying to get students in,” Plourde said. “We’re at a point, though, where we’ll have to start adding more sections.”

Despite difficulties with staffing, she said, the program and curriculum continue to run smoothly, and students often find work soon after they earn their degree.

Career opportunities include information security analyst, incident responder, network security engineer, chief information security officer, information security architect, and forensics analyst.

“The jobs expected after taking these classes vary … there are just so many different opportunities out there,” she said. “Many of the students coming back are retraining or already working in information technology, and their companies may pay for them to get this degree because they want that added layer of expertise.”

Nathan Yerxa, who graduated from the program this past spring, said the classes helped him to better understand the information security landscape, as well as better design systems and programs for information security.

The Portland resident, who works as the director of IT and information security at North East Mobile Health Services in Scarborough, also serves as an adjunct teacher for the SMCC program. As technology continues to increase at an exponential rate, he explained, the need for cybersecurity officials will continue to rise.

“With every piece of technology we create, we are also likely creating its vulnerabilities at the same time,” he said in an interview Aug. 28. “The job will never go away, even with artificial intelligence or machine learning or advanced algorithms and decision making.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of information security jobs was projected to grow 28 percent nationally from 2016-2026, far higher than the average growth rate of 7 percent for all occupations.

As for the future of SMCC’s program, Yerxa believes it will continue to grow and serve as one of New England’s most practical and affordable cybersecurity programs.

“We’re only scratching the surface about what this field is all about,” he said. “It’s not only about training professionals but about educating everyone at large about what it means to be secure and privacy-minded.”


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