Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand encouraged Suffolk Community College students on Monday...

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand encouraged Suffolk Community College students on Monday to apply to the Cyber Service Academy scholarship program. Credit: Rick Kopstein

It's like the ROTC, but instead of guns their weapons will be computers.

Under an expanded federal program, college students can now win full scholarships to study cybersecurity in exchange for working for the Department of Defense for a limited time after graduation, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced this week.

The federally funded Cyber Service Academy scholarship program is aimed at filling a shortage of workers in the public sector in the booming field, Gillibrand said at a news conference at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Brentwood.

Suffolk Community is one of 19 schools in New York State and the only one on Long Island currently taking part in the program, officials said.

“There are thousands of unfilled public-sector cybersecurity positions, leaving our country with a severe shortage of cyber personnel needed to protect the United States from adversaries like Russia,” Gillibrand said.

The Cyber Service Academy will “help meet these needs and give our youth a path to good-paying jobs,” she said.

The program will pay all tuition and also includes a stipend for housing, Gillibrand said. The aim is to cover the full cost of the student's college education, she said.

The amounts awarded will probably average about $50,000 a year but could go as high as $100,000 a year, she said. Low income students may be eligible for additional stipends.

Students who receive the scholarships are required to work for the U.S. Department of Defense or the National Security Agency for the same number of years they received the scholarship.

The nationwide program will award scholarships to 1,000 students a year, Gillibrand said. Applications are being accepted through Feb. 1 for the 2024-25 academic year.

Suffolk established its own cybersecurity studies program in 2017, with 38 students enrolling, said  Professor Wesley Francillon, who runs the program.

The number is now up to 108, with a waiting list, and is expected to double capacity by next fall when the program expands from the college’s Selden campus to include its Brentwood campus.

The program in Brentwood will be operating from a new $22 million STEM building, said Edward T. Bonahue, the college's president.

The federal program could be a huge boon to underprivileged students who make up a large portion of Suffolk's enrollment, sometimes also holding down jobs to pay tuition, Francillon said.

“I’m very excited about the program really because our students have so many financial constraints and if you can alleviate some of that” it will help them go into the cybersecurity field, he said.

Suffolk’s cybersecurity program is certified by the National Security Agency, Francillon said.

Some 200 colleges nationwide including Stanford University are taking part in the scholarship program, but Gillibrand said she hopes to increase that to about 1,000. Schools in New York she would like to see join and that have programs in place that would allow them to qualify include Stony Brook University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

Eventually she wants the United States to build a "bricks and mortar" campus, similar to West Point (U.S. Military Academy) or Annapolis (U.S. Naval Academy), where a national cybersecurity college could be located, she said.

Cybersecurity has already emerged as a major issue on Long Island, Gillibrand noted. Last year, Suffolk County’s government was hacked, forcing workers to resort to faxes instead of email, to issue paper checks and to take 911 calls by hand, she said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at the news conference more cybersecurity workers are “desperately needed” to “provide the defense against the ongoing onslaught that will only grow in the future.”

Gillibrand created the Cyber Service Academy scholarship program in 2022 through her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and said she expanded it this year to allow graduates to serve in the intelligence community as well.
 

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