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MCCC Student Places Eighth in NJ Governor’s First Statewide Cybersecurity Challenge


West Windsor, N.J. – Mercer County Community College student Thomas Herrell of East Windsor placed eighth in the inaugural New Jersey Governor’s Cyber Corps Challenge, held at Brookdale Community College in March.

The event was hosted by Governor Chris Christie, in partnership with the cybersecurity consultancy and education company, SANS (SysAdmin, Audit, Network, Security). Its goal was to give students and job seekers across the state the opportunity to compete in various Internet challenges and recognize the state’s best young talent in cybersecurity and, ultimately, place them in high-level security jobs.

Herrell decided to participate in the Cyber Corps Challenge with encouragement from MCCC faculty member Chris Pecci, who teaches the college’s Network Security Design class.  “I learned a lot through this competition,” Herrell said.  “I like cybersecurity because it involves many different fields in computing and makes you use many different abilities.”

Registration for the challenge was free and open to New Jersey high school, college and graduate students, as well as veterans, members of the armed forces, and job seekers. 

The first phase of the challenge was a Cyber Aces Foundation online competition for the 600 registrants, which consisted of three modules and associated quizzes.

MCCC Information Systems major Thomas Herrell placed eighth in the inaugural New Jersey Governor’s Cyber Corps Challenge, held at Brookdale Community College in March.  He is pictured with Ed Skoudis, Counter Hack Challenges founder and SANS Faculty Fellow. (Photo courtesy of Cyber Aces)
Herrell initially competed against 600 other registrants, then went on to compete with the top 15 percent in an all-day challenge at Brookdale. (Photo courtesy of Cyber Aces)

The top 15 percent of participants were then invited to compete in an all-day challenge, created by NetWars, the system used by the U.S. Military, U.S. Government agencies and many commercial companies to evaluate and train their employees.

An awards ceremony followed, where Herrell, an Information Systems major at Mercer, was recognized as the eighth place finalist out of the top ten.  He and the other top performers will be invited to enroll in the New Jersey CyberCenter at Brookdale, where they will be immersed in intensive cybersecurity curriculum comprised of a combination of college courses and SANS Institute training.  The goal is to place these individuals in cybersecurity jobs upon completion of the certification program.

The CyberCenter is funded through a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant. 

“The New Jersey CyberCenter/Brookdale model is designed to transform the cyberskills pipeline just as a similar program early in World War II did for aviator training,” said SANS Institute Director of Research Alan Paller. “Cyber skills are as important to the protection of the nation today as aviation skills were during World War II.”

Herrell’s instructor, Pecci, has been teaching as an adjunct instructor in MCCC's Network Engineering Technologies program for eight years.  He uses his cybersecurity class to show students how to defend computer networks against hacker attacks, and how to leverage technologies, such as Cisco firewalls, to protect the confidentiality of personal and private data on computer networks.

“Our classes provide students with real-world knowledge of business and industry best practices for securing public and private computer networks against attack,” said Pecci, adding that when he started teaching about cybersecurity four years ago it was barely on the radar of the media, and corporate awareness of cybersecurity threats was still evolving.

“With recurring high profile breaches of personal data, companies are now racing to fill cybersecurity positions and are finding there is a shortage of qualified professionals,” Pecci said.  "Thomas is a bright student with a great talent in this field. Education is about self-discovery, and Mercer is here to provide the foundation that enables students to learn, achieve, and succeed.  I'm sure Thomas will go far in whatever he chooses to do.”

According to MCCC's Information Technology Program Coordinator Jeff Weichert, Mercer is expecting to see an increase in enrollment for cybersecurity courses at the college.  "The need for highly skilled network administrators is expected to continue growing over the coming years, and Mercer is well positioned to train our students in all facets of cybersecurity defense."

For more information about course offerings in networking and cybersecurity at MCCC, email weicherj@mccc.edu.

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