Faith Clarke has been selected for the SANS Diversity Cyber Academy.

Cybersecurity student Faith Clarke has been selected for the SANS Diversity Cyber Academy. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Faith Clarke dreams of working in digital forensics, digging through computer systems to uncover malware and analyze its origins.

It’s a growing field in the digitally connected world, with businesses and government entities keenly interested in rooting out cybercrime and protecting their data.

Clarke, a senior pursuing her bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, is moving closer to her dream through her participation in the Diversity Cyber Academy, a joint effort from the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals and the SANS Institute.

The St. Louis native was one of fewer than 20 students among more than 500 applicants selected to attend the academy, which provides women and people of color an opportunity to pursue industry-recognized certifications through a hands-on, six-month training program.

Clarke will be working to earn a GSEC certification in security essentials, a GCIH certificate in incident handling and an elective GCFE certificate in forensics examination.

“I really, really want these certifications,” Clarke said. “The certifications I’ll be getting are Department of Defense-approved and very reputable, which basically opens up your job outlook for a variety of jobs. My dream job is to be in digital forensics and incident response, working for the government.”

Clarke was able to discover that area of interest during an internship at Ascension Healthcare, while working on the digital forensics team.

“During this internship, I created my own computer and created my own malware analysis lab because that’s what I’m interested in,” Clarke said. “I figured out that I really enjoyed cybersecurity, and that’s actually how I learned about the SANS program. I talked to a recruiter who told me that they have these scholarship programs available for people who might not have the necessary funds because the SANS program runs about $8,000 a class per certification.”

Finding her way to the accelerated program required Clarke to first slow down.

Clarke graduated a year early from Maplewood Richmond Heights High School and was whizzing through criminology classes at UMSL as a member of the Pierre Laclede Honors College when she realized that she wasn’t on the right path.

“I was considering dropping out of the Honors College,” Clarke said. “My grades were dropping. I was struggling with money. I was trying, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I met with my advisor, and we decided that I was going to switch to the cybersecurity degree.”

Calling her academic advisor Jennifer Richardson a “godsend,” Clarke said Richardson was able to help her see that cybersecurity merged her original interest in criminology with computer science, an interest she discovered while a student at UMSL. Richardson also helped Clarke see that she needed to pump her brakes a little.

“We met and mapped out my semesters, and I started by slowing down,” Clarke said. “I took semesters off and I started coming back part-time. I went from a 2.7 GPA to a 3.3.”

Clarke said that in addition to the training and certification aspect of the program, she is also hopeful that she will be able to add to her professional network. She realizes the value of networking because it was her personal network that connected her to Todd Gray, IT Security Director at Ascension who helped her land the internship.

“My mom is always putting feelers out there and telling people about me, and her friend recommended me to Gerry Lewis, Ascension Senior Vice President and CIO,” Clarke said. “I emailed him, we met and talked, and he told me to set up a one-page plan where he had me list all my accomplishments and strengths. When we met again, he offered me the internship and connected me with Mr. Gray.”

Clarke hopes to continue making those types of connections during the cybersecurity academy. As a Black woman with visible tattoos, she is grateful for the opportunity to network with other people like her who may not fit the traditional cybersecurity professional mold.

“In the profession I’m trying to go in, I haven’t met another woman or a Black person,” Clarke said. “So in this diversity academy, they have a Slack channel with weekly check-ins, and we’re all expected to participate. I’m hoping that we’re able to network with each other and make some future contacts.

“When I interviewed for this opportunity, I was asked, ‘What would you do for people of color if you were accepted?’ I told her, ‘I would just try to spread awareness.’ A lot of Black people don’t even know about what jobs are available in the technology field or emerging fields that don’t get a lot of attention like cybersecurity. I want to change that.”

Ramona Curtis

Ramona Curtis