Cracking the Code: Coastline College’s CyberTech Girls Event Opens Doors Feature Story

February 28, 2023
Student and teacher at Cybertech event

With over 750,000 open positions across the country and over 80,000 in California alone, the field of cybersecurity is full of high-demand, high-paying careers for people with the right education. In Orange County, Coastline College’s cybersecurity program is leading the charge to meet the regional need by building pathways into the field with events like its recent CyberTech Girls series.

“The purpose isn’t to exclude anyone and if male students want to come, they’re always welcome,” explains Coastline cybersecurity professor and department chair, Tobi West. “But because women are extremely underrepresented in the field of cybersecurity, the focus of this particular event is really to create an inclusive space for young women to explore a career path that they might not learn about elsewhere.”

First held in 2016, this no-cost event includes industry-led webinars and hands-on workshops to introduce students to the many careers and opportunities available to them in the field of cybersecurity at one of the best community college programs in the state. In addition to earning the prestigious Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) designation from the NSA and Department of Homeland Security, Coastline College’s cybersecurity program was one of two community colleges to earn the California State Chancellor’s Office’s Exemplary Program Award in 2020.

Coastline is also part of the Southern California Community College Consortium on Cybersecurity, a collaborative effort between Coastline College, Cypress College, Irvine Valley College, Saddleback College, and Santa Ana College to develop pathways to success in cybersecurity for K-12 students in Orange County. With a primary focus to lead cybersecurity education in the region, its goal is to provide SoCal high schools and middle schools with the opportunity to learn about cybersecurity and compete in various competitions like CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program for students of all levels to gain new skills in cyber camps.

In addition to being offered entirely online, Coastline’s cybersecurity program offers certificates and degrees with a variety of career specializations including Cybersecurity, Cybersecurity Analyst, Cybersecurity and Computer Networking, Cybersecurity Fundamentals, and Offensive Security, and has one of the only Digital Forensics and Incident Response programs in the state. The stackable nature of these certificates makes them a great option for first-time students as well as mid-career adults looking to upskill for a promotion or change careers.

“Cyber skills are needed in every industry these days, so there are tons of great paying jobs,” says Andrea Barrios, a full-time professor at Coastline and longtime CyberTech Girls mentor. “I just want our students, and especially the girls, to know it is within their grasp and that they don’t have to look or speak a certain way to be successful.”

This year’s event was a partnership between California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), and Coastline College with the unique purpose of promoting a computer science pathway between the colleges.

“At CSUF we have a cybersecurity concentration, and we plan to add a cybersecurity minor,” says CSUF computer science professor, Doina Bein, Ph.D. “By working together, we hope to create a pipeline of female students coming from Coastline College or nearby high schools into the BS in Computer Science program at CSUF.”

Occurring over several weeks, the event included five online webinars on a variety of topics, and on February 11 culminated with a Valentine’s Day-themed workshop. In addition to a presentation from a female FBI digital forensics agent, the final day included a hands-on workshop in which students used block coding and an Adafruit Circuit Playground kit to turn an ordinary heart-shaped candy box into a blinged-out, LED light show.

“I’m starting to think about my future and applying to colleges,” says Marley G., a junior at Huntington Beach High School who attended the event. “I’m taking an AP Computer Science Principles class at my high school and am really liking it, so when I heard about this it seemed like a perfect chance to learn more about computer science and cybersecurity.”

One hallmark of the event is the students and industry mentors who give attendees a chance to talk and work with professionals who are working in the field. This year’s mentors came from a variety of institutions such as Cal Poly Pomona, Fullerton College, Irvine Valley College, ACI Learning, the FBI, as well as Coastline College itself.

“When I first started, there were hardly any women in the field, so we kinda stuck together and I had many mentors take me under their wings,” says Tamara Poelma, a CyberTech Girls mentor and forensics agent with California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. “Women think differently and that’s a good thing because this is a field that requires out-of-the-box thinking. Plus, these are great paying, challenging but fun jobs!”

Despite the unique nature of the CyberTech Girls event, it is just one of many programs Coastline College has helped develop to help bridge the gap between K-12, college, and the cybersecurity industry. Other programs include several dual-enrollment agreements that allow participants to earn transferable college credit while in high school, yearly NSF and NSA-authorized GenCyber Camps, and a variety of industry competitions like CyberPatriot, National Cyber League, SoCal Cyber Cup, and others.

Coastline College also provides students with free certification vouchers so they can earn their industry certifications as they complete their coursework.

“If they take a class with Security Plus alignment, they get a voucher that allows them to sit for the Security Plus certification for free, “explains West. “Many of these certifications are more expensive than our classes, so it’s a win-win. They get the training they need to be successful and a chance to take the exam, all the while building their resumes.”

Looking to the future, West is excited about the promises of AI and continuing to build Coastline’s cybersecurity program.

“We’re always asking, ‘How do we best serve our students?’” says West. “‘What do they need? And what are we hearing from industry about what they need?’” says West. “Helping students find ways to achieve their goals and reduce the shortage of cybersecurity professionals is important to us at Coastline College.”

Dr. Shelly Blair, Dean of Innovative Learning & Career Education at Coastline, credits their innovative faculty as a key driver of student success, “Our Cybersecurity faculty are always thinking of new ways to support our students. They are passionate about what they do and continually evolve our programs to make Cybersecurity more accessible to diverse students, more responsive to industry needs, and keep our students competitive in the job market.”