Bashir receives an additional $4M from NSF for cybersecurity scholarships

Masooda Bashir
Masooda Bashir, Associate Professor

For a decade, the Illinois Cyber Security Scholars Program (ICSSP) has been offering scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Illinois in exchange for government service after graduation. The program is offered through the University's Information Trust Institute (ITI), an interdisciplinary research center addressing all aspects of information trust.

Funded through the National Science Foundation's Scholarship for Service program, ICSSP scholarships provide full tuition plus a generous stipend, enabling talented students to pursue cybersecurity studies without worrying about financial pressures. Under the program's terms, once students have graduated, they must work for the government for as many years as they received funding. In addition to supporting students, the program is also helping provide the government with a vital pipeline of trained cybersecurity workers.

"As cyber threats continue to increase in volume, sophistication, and severity, there is a huge shortage of cybersecurity professionals and researchers around the world to defend against and prevent such threats, meaning that millions of jobs are currently unfilled and even more will be needed in the future," said Associate Professor Masooda Bashir, PI of the program and an affiliate of the ITI. "One of the reasons the government is offering this program is that we need to build a workforce that protects information infrastructure and is sensitive to the privacy, security, and ethics aspects of information systems that are critical to society. We need graduates from top universities such as Illinois to be working on these problems."

Over sixty students have successfully completed the ICSSP program to date, supported by over $10 million in NSF funding. Because of the strong success of previous ICSSP graduates, NSF has renewed the program repeatedly.

"We've been able to renew the program twice, allowing us to celebrate the ten-year anniversary this year," Bashir said.

Thanks to the most recent funding extension of $4M, the scholarships will be offered for at least four more years. For the first time this year, the scholarship program was open to students in the School of Information Sciences as well as students in Grainger College of Engineering.

Mark Cockburn and Masooda Bashir
Mark Cockburn and Masooda Bashir

The first iSchool recipient of the scholarship is MS/IM student Mark Cockburn. Originally from Delaware, Cockburn moved to central Illinois in 2014, earning his pilot's certificate and an associate's degree from Parkland College and a BS in psychology from the University of Illinois.

"Learning of ICSSP and the inclusion of students in the MS in Information Management program, I was immediately interested in this potential pathway," Cockburn said. "Prior to learning of the opportunity, my intention was to seek government employment upon graduation. With ICSSP, I learned I'd have access to exclusive job fairs and internship opportunities available only to recipients of Scholarship for Service (SFS) scholarships."

Cockburn is interested in aviation safety, in particular the impact a lack of encryption or other security measures may play in a newly implemented anti-collision traffic detection broadcast protocol now required by all aircraft.

"After receiving my degree, I would like to work for a government agency that deals with aviation regulation and infrastructure," he said. "My hope is to utilize the skills and knowledge gained throughout my graduate education to continue improving both commercial and general aviation industries while ensuring flying remains enjoyable and the safest mode of transportation available."

Cockburn is one of eight new students who joined this year. According to Bashir, the program selects students who are smart, model citizens who want to work for the government; applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

In addition to receiving funding support, scholarship winners attend a specially developed seminar series and receive one-on-one mentorship and advising from ICSSP faculty. They also receive career support and have the opportunity to learn directly from past program participants.

"Our alumni are actively in contact with us; they give talks to current students, and provide mentorship," Bashir said. "Even after they finish the obligatory contract, we’re still in contact with them and invite them to come back to mentor current students."

Applications for scholarships starting in Fall 2020 will open in the early spring. For more information about the program, curriculum, or requirements, visit the ICSSP website.

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