Twenty-Fifth Air Force members adopted two teams from San Antonio’s Thomas Jefferson High School to help prepare them for this year’s CyberPatriot competition.
Created by the Air Force Association to encourage K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity, CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program that culminates annually with the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, where teams from across the United States compete for gold, silver, and platinum medals in online cybersecurity challenges.
Carlos Estrada, CyberPatriot team member and Jefferson Army Junior ROTC senior, said the school’s program would simply not exist without the mentors from the 625th Operations Center. “More than that, without our mentors and the technical support they provide we would not have this team,” Estrada said.
The 625th OC mentors coach students on leadership, team-building skills, and technical knowledge, pushing them to success throughout this year’s competition.
“One thing I learned from CyberPatriot is personal computer security,” said Elena Benevidez, first-year CyberPatriot team member. “I also learned how to work with fellow students, which made a big difference in how we operated as a team. Reaching the gold level meant a lot to me, and it was fun because we made it a lot further than we thought we could.”
Students agreed that individual success was not a priority, but that the success of the team and school pride made the experience valuable. For some students, this was their first year participating with the CyberPatriot program; while for others, it marked their last.
“CyberPatriot gave me the chance to see what kinds of cyber careers exist and what different opportunities are out in the world,” said Estrada. “I also learned that as a team you can achieve almost any goal you set.”
Jefferson’s CyberPatriot mentors are teaching students about operating systems, routers, switches and internet protocols while they prepare for the state and semi-final rounds of competition in February and March.
“We have more than 300 teams here in San Antonio, which, for three consecutive years, is more than any other city in the nation,” said Joe Sanchez, chief of the 625th Network Operations Division within the Twenty-fifth Air Force. “To put that into perspective, we only had 24 teams the first year in 2010. It was easier to manage the mentoring program with just those 24 teams. With the 300-plus teams we have today, it is rather difficult to assign mentors to each, which makes our need for volunteers tremendous.”
Answering part of that call is a group of information technology professionals from the 625th OC, who use their military training and civilian experience to mentor these future cyber warriors. “These mentors from the 625th NOD impart invaluable knowledge to students,” Sanchez said. “From the young Airman who is only a year out of technical training, to the civilian who has been doing this for 20 years – our mentor team is sharing experiences and coaching students who will lead the way in technological development.”
George Cue, 625th OC member and CyberPatriot mentor, has been with the program since the beginning, and witnessed first-year teams advance to the gold and platinum rounds with the coaching of their Twenty-Fifth Air Force mentors. “We continue to provide the fundamentals. After attending a few after school workshops this year, students were able to go from round one all the way to state,” Cue said. “Our freshmen/sophomore team advanced to the gold level and our senior team advanced to platinum. For brand new teams with only two months of experience, they did extremely well and I am super proud of them.”
Cue believes becoming a mentor and sharing his Air Force technology experience with local youth is crucial to the nation’s future in cyber. “The most rewarding part of this experience has been building the next generation of cybersecurity experts,” he said. “Even if you have a basic understanding of computer operating systems or networking, you can absolutely be successful in this mentorship program and I would encourage you to lend a hand.”
Sanchez also believes mentorship is about more than helping the students win or medal, but about increasing their knowledge and overall interest in cyber throughout the training and mentorship process. “That the teams have mentors who are immersed in this line of work daily has made a big difference,” Sanchez said. “At some point, I would like mentors at our wings, center, and their respective units, and encourage our Airmen to build and promote similar CyberPatriot programs.
This year’s CyberPatriot season will conclude with the San Antonio Mayor's Cyber Cup, March 30 at the Freeman Coliseum. For more information, visit www.uscyberpatriot.org.