Cathy Sowa is no stranger to the classroom. A few minutes speaking with Cathy and it is easy to see that education plays a significant role in her life. She is a former middle school teacher and past adjunct education professor at Eastern Illinois University. Cathy’s impressive resume also includes a bachelor’s degree in business education, a master’s degree in education, and an associate degree in Applied Science in Network Administration. Today, this highly-driven woman is working toward her master’s degree in information technology, with a concentration in cybersecurity and digital forensics from Middle Georgia State University.
Cathy earned her SANS Undergraduate Certificate in Applied Cybersecurity (ACS) in December 2020 amid an ambitious schedule that included graduate classes and a full-time position as an Information Security Tech II at Valdosta State University. Here, Cathy talks to us about her experience with the SANS.edu ACS program and offers advice to those considering a similar path.
Q. How did you get interested in cybersecurity?
A. My interest in technology dates back to elementary school. I remember taking computer programming courses during summer sessions at the local university when I was in junior high – just for fun! My attention turned to cybersecurity specifically after my husband and I were victims of identity theft. After that horrible experience, I knew I wanted to become a champion for data security. I was excited at the prospect of working in a field that was challenging, fast paced and offered diverse opportunities. I wanted a job that met those criteria and had a truly meaningful and impactful purpose.
Q. What is your current job and what is your role?
A. For the past three years I have been working at Valdosta State University as an Information Security Tech II. I am a defensive operations and training specialist. My team and I manage securities solutions and coordinate incident response and forensics. Additionally, in my role, I help assess risk and compliance among more than 1,300 employees.
Q. Why did you choose to enroll in SANS Technology Institute's ACS program?
A. One of my professors at Middle Georgia State University mentioned Cyber FastTrack, an online cyber scholarship competition. I was so excited at the prospect of winning a scholarship to SANS. When I had the chance to apply for a scholarship to the ACS program, I submitted the application immediately. I already knew that SANS is the premier training program in the cybersecurity field. You go to SANS if you want to be the best. I was committed to making that happen – and here I am.
Q. What did receiving the Cyber FastTrack scholarship mean to you?
A. The scholarship meant the world to me. It was my opportunity to get a SANS education. With a SANS education, I knew I could reach new heights in my career.
Q. From your research how did the ACS program differ from your current undergraduate degree program?
A. SANS.edu offers a level of support and resources that I have never seen. Support comes from the instructors, all active experts in the field; the behind-the-scenes staff; and members of the Career Center. There is always someone available to get questions answered and point me in the right direction. Also, the lab environment is so unique. Most other programs that I have enrolled in have been academic – you learn why you do things, but not how. The SANS.edu workshops teach you the how. The workshops are offered at the end of each course. They provide hands-on, real world scenarios. Here, students can put into practice what they learn.
Q. What did you find most valuable about the program?
A. The connections that I made with the other students and the SANS.edu support team were so valuable. We communicated through Slack. We shared experiences, tools and tips, and encouraged each other all the way. We took an important journey together; and I have created tremendous friendships. It is these connections that really solidified my amazing SANS.edu experience.
Q. Did you take classes online or at live events?
A. I was so sad that I could not attend live events due to COVID-19. However, I was able to make real connections with students, instructors and the SANS support team in other ways. I am keeping my fingers crossed and hope to enroll in a SANS master's certificate program in a few years. Then I can go to live events. I am told it is a remarkable experience.
Q. How has the SANS.edu Career Center helped you in your search for internships and jobs?
A. The people who work in the Career Center talk to industry professionals all the time. They have valuable insights that will help prepare me for success. I've already worked with the Career Center to update my resume. And as I get ready to look for new opportunities, I will definitely reach back out.
Q. How has your SANS.edu certificate impacted your career trajectory?
A. This was a mid-career change and there was definitely a calculated risk going into it. I was successful in my job but didn't know if I could achieve more. Knowing that I was not only accepted into the SANS program, but was also awarded a scholarship, gave me a tremendous confidence boost. It gave me the self-assurance I needed to stay focused on my goals. If SANS could see my potential, I knew that I could be the professional that I dreamed to be.
Q. What advice would you offer someone considering applying to the SANS Technology Institute?
A. It does not matter what stage of your career you are in. Whether you are new to the field or looking to enhance your skills, SANS has a program for you. SANS certificate programs are broad and each offers hands-on, career-building courses. Take your time and review all of the certificate courses and get to know the many different paths available to you.
Q. What's next for Cathy Sowa?
A. I will graduate with a master's degree in Information Technology in December 2021. After that, I hope to pursue a penetration testing pathway. I want to move from a defensive position to an offensive position. I also want to continue working on learning methodologies and programming languages. I don't have everything mapped out just yet, but that is my general thinking. I am still a work in progress.