UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Across the country, many college students suddenly found themselves without professional summer experiences when stay-at-home orders surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented companies from offering in-person internships.
With students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology having offers rescinded from their internship placements, the IST Alumni Association and the Office of Career Solutions and Corporate Engagement stepped in to help students get internship experience amid the pandemic. An email was sent to all college alumni requesting them to, if they were able, assist students in obtaining meaningful professional experiences this summer.
When he saw the email, 2016 graduate Aaron Wilson had just earned his master’s degree in cybersecurity online from Western Governors University. He said that during the start of the pandemic, one of his instructors started giving away free subscriptions to his online hacking program. This inspired Wilson to help others as well.
“I figured [I could] provide people with some unique experiences,” Wilson said. “I could take this opportunity to teach others and provide the course materials [from the program] to them as well.”
Wilson decided to combine his career experience as a penetration tester for home improvement retailer Lowe’s with his education to create a hacking bootcamp for College of IST students.
“This is kind of the combination of what I’ve learned from the theoretical side from my master’s degree and the practical hands-on side that I got from cyber competitions and capture the flag exercises [at IST],” said Wilson.
Inside hacker bootcamp
The hacker bootcamp is an eight-week hands-on online program taught by Wilson. The four interns — who are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in security and risk analysis or cybersecurity analytics and operations at University Park or through Penn State World Campus — are participating in video lessons, reading various textbooks and completing online hacking workshops through platforms such as TryHackMe. Security industry professionals also have been invited to join the class as guest speakers. The goal for the end of the bootcamp is for students to be able to pass the Certified Ethical Hacker exam.
“I could not be happier with how this experience has been so far,” said Daniel Rodgers, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity analytics and operations at University Park. “I got the offer to participate in the hacker bootcamp after losing my initial internship due to the pandemic, and it has kept me focused on my interests and field of study.”
For the final assignment, Wilson plans to set up a capture the flag puzzle that the students must be able to solve and explain how they completed it.
“My No. 1 goal is that they learn at least one thing,” said Wilson. “In the security [industry], you have to stay up to date on the latest tools and technology, so teaching them how to research, how to find the right tools — and different tools — is a big takeaway from the bootcamp.”
‘It’s about giving back to IST’
Wilson is funding the entire program out of his own pocket, including the textbooks and online materials that the students are using.
“I wanted to give them a good opportunity and invest in them,” he said.
Wilson originally started in a different college at Penn State, but soon learned he wanted to take a different path. He had always been interested in technology but didn’t find his niche until he found the security and risk analysis (SRA) major and enrolled in the College of IST.
“I was looking for something that excited me, and the thing that kept catching my eye [was] SRA,” he said.
Wilson said he still uses skills that he learned through the program every single day.
“From the beginning of the SRA degree, in SRA 111, we talked about the CIA triad. That’s the very first thing that you learn in the major, but I literally use that every single day to assess risks for a Fortune 50 company,” he said.
Wilson said one of the most important things he learned during his time in the college was how to work with others through the numerous group assignments he had.
“The projects are definitely some of the best things we did in IST,” Wilson said. “Having to work with other people is a daily requirement in the work force. Never be afraid to work with other people.”
Wilson also stressed the importance of IST’s internship requirement, which helped him immensely in his career. He completed his IST internship in the information technology department at Lowe’s and was hired by the company full time after graduation. Wilson said he is motivated by the prospect of helping fellow IST students and wants them to get the same meaningful experience he did when he was in their shoes. His internship experience led him to a job, and he hopes to give the same possibility to other students.
“What would be the greatest takeaway for me is if anyone that does this program gets a job in information security — at any company — because this helped them,” Wilson said.
“For me, it’s about giving back to IST. I just want to give [these students] the opportunity to learn.”