Service men and women apply military backgrounds to Penn State, IST experiences

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In recognition of Memorial Day and Military Appreciation Month, Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology honors the men and women among its faculty, staff, students, and alumni who are serving or who have served in the armed forces.

Several veterans recently shared how they’ve integrated their military backgrounds into their Penn State and IST experience.

IST’s security and risk analysis program grows with help from Marine colonel’s real-world simulations

Col. Jake Graham, professor of practice of IST, began his Penn State teaching career in 2007 after spending more than 26 years in the Marines.

“Wow them with war stories,” he recalled was the advice given to him when he first came to IST, by then-dean Henry Foley. Graham had been an instructor in the Marines, but had never taught in a college classroom and was looking for help with the transition.

“That tongue-in-cheek comment resonated with me,” said Graham.

That was in the early years of the college’s security and risk analysis (SRA) undergraduate program, which Graham has since helped to grow into a leading program that prepares graduates for careers in intelligence.

“I don’t know of another security and risk analysis program anywhere,” he said.

“That’s significant in that the people who come here and hire our students know what they’re going to get,” he added. “For employers, once they understand [what Penn State’s SRA program is], they recognize the value.”

Graham helped to develop the program by drawing on his own military experience as a pilot and a commander. During his career in the Marines, he held several command billets, numerous staff billets, completed various military schools, and served overseas for eight years. As a pilot he served in a number of aviation units, including Marine Helicopter One in support of former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and supported humanitarian and disaster relief operations. He completed five overseas tours, served as an air base commander, and served as director of nuclear operations in Europe.

“I’ve held a lot of serious jobs with a very low tolerance for mistakes,” he said.

In the college classroom, Graham uses this background to write simulations for each course he teaches, bringing real-life problems for his students to solve. His first simulation was a complex series of fictional scenarios and reports titled Show Me the Money. The mission was to track terrorist financing.

“It was built to use the tenets of problem-based learning, blending that with real problems, and giving it the feel of something real, making it tangible for the students,” he said.

Graham taught that course for several years when he was asked to create another scenario, Decision Theory and Analytics, focusing on four separate government agencies’ responses to a hypothetical Metro crash and a jewelry store robbery in Washington, D.C.

These five-week simulations expanded into a semester-long project, which has become the SRA program’s capstone course — now a writing-intensive, analytic response to hypothetical global threats.

Graham explained that these exercises aim to test how students transfer their critical thinking into critical writing, and how they present and defend their findings in front of a group of peers.

“Those are the things that give students material for job interviews,” he said. “These exercises will give you a starting point for discussion.”

In 2009, Graham and a group of students explored a way to provide similar exercises outside the classroom. The result was IST’s Red Cell Analytics Lab. The student organization provides hands-on experience by using structured analytics to examine real-world security issues on topics ranging from Penn State student life to national security threats.

The club has grown to a 200-person standing membership with more than 500 alumni. Graham notes that the experience makes a lasting impact on its participants by providing a differentiating experience.

“When you have a group of high-performing students all taking the same classes and in the same GPA range, there’s got to be something that distinguishes them from someone else,” he said. “The ability to articulate some of these projects can become that distinction.”

Air Force veteran helps fill critical demand for cybersecurity professionals

When Mike Hills, associate teaching professor of IST, came to Penn State seeking a faculty position in 2015, he encountered something he had never done before.

“I was a guy who did his first job interview at the ripe age of about 50,” he said. “That was a unique experience.”

Having served in the Air Force for the majority of his career, Hills got to know the former dean of the College of IST, Dave Hall, when he came to Penn State to pursue his doctoral degree. Hall, who had also worked in the Air Force, suggested that Hills consider a role as an adjunct professor teaching students online as he approached military retirement.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s an extension of inspiring people to be their best.”

Hills’ time as an educator started early in his military career. Throughout his service he took advantage of many career-broadening opportunities, the first being an instructor for ROTC.

“That was where I got my first hint that teaching was maybe something I’d like to do long-term,” he said.

Hills got another opportunity to teach at the graduate level at Air Command and Staff College. That’s when he applied for the program that made him eligible to pursue his doctorate at Penn State.

After earning his doctoral degree, and a 15-month deployment to Pakistan, Hills began teaching in the college’s security and risk analysis and information sciences and technology programs.

“A lot of the risk management [principles] really blend well with my military planning background,” Hills said, citing his Air Force role in helping to plan a recovery operation when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.

“There’s a practical edge to that,” he explained. “You only have so many aircraft. You only have so much money and material and manpower. I try to bring those types of things into my teaching of risk management to give [the students] some context.”

In the IST program, Hills teaches network security and applies his military connection to his coursework. The Air Force has been a prime target for hackers trying to get ahold of data, he explained.

“If there’s a vulnerability that isn’t patched, that could have serious implications," said Hills.

While he cites examples from his Air Force experience, he notes that the same security precautions need to be employed across all industries, including banking, health care and supply chain management.

“What you’re going into is important and makes a difference,” he tells his students. “Because in this day and age, it’s a necessity to have the network up.”

Hills is also the lead coordinator for the college’s National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense, sponsored by the National Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. The goal of the program is to reduce vulnerability in the nation’s information infrastructure by promoting higher education and research in cyber defense and to produce professionals with cyber defense expertise.

“By 2020, we’ll be 2 million people short in this arena because we can’t educate them fast enough with enough of the skills,” he said. “That’s why you see the college’s program starting to grow in the data sciences and the new cybersecurity program, which is really stepping up the game a little bit. The demand for these people and skills is through the roof.”

Students connect in-class lessons with critical military skills

Class of 2018 graduate Erin Hesse grew up in a military family and always knew that she wanted to follow in their footsteps. So when she got to Penn State, she joined the Army ROTC.

“I just felt in my heart that I wanted to serve,” she said.

While her call to service was very clear, Hesse was unsure of what she wanted to study at Penn State. She entered the Division of Undergraduate Studies, the University’s home for students exploring multiple academic programs before committing to a course of study.

Then she discovered the College of IST and the security and risk analysis program.

“I instantly became interested in it,” she said. “After talking to an academic adviser, I realized that SRA was the perfect fit for me.”

Hesse cited the course simulations and scenarios in various courses as piquing her interest.

“I knew that I would do well working on different projects like that, compared to a major that would be strictly exams,” she said.

She also stated that the group scenarios were a good way to meet people with similar interests.

“[I thought that they] would help me to communicate with people better so that when I get to the workplace I will be familiar with how it is to work on and potentially manage a team of individuals,” she explained.

Now a Penn State graduate, Hesse will officially begin her time in service on June 15 as a Signal Corps officer. She will attend a Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Gordon in Georgia before reporting to her first duty station at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

She said that the experience and skills she gained from the College of IST and ROTC have prepared her for duty.

“I will use the critical thinking skills that I learned [at IST],” she said. “There is not always one right or wrong answer to solve an issue. By using different skills such as risk assessments, trial and error or analytical charts, I will be able to see and map out different situations in order to help solve them or at least come up with a temporary solution.”

“The discipline I developed in ROTC as well as the people I met and connections I have made all played a vital role in my success as well,” she added.

While Hesse is unsure where her career path will lead her after her four years of active duty, she will most likely utilize the education she received in the College of IST.

“It was not until later [in my academic career] that I realized the connection between some of the jobs in the military and the jobs available to students after graduating with an SRA degree,” she said.

For John Humphreys, who served in the Marines from 2013 through February of this year, his experience as an intelligence analyst had a direct impact on his choice of major: international politics, national security concentration with minors in security and risk analysis, global security and homeland security.

“These degree paths are directly a result of my experience in the Marine Corps and intention to continue work in the intelligence community,” he said.

Prior to enlisting, Humphreys had attended college and “was just an average student with unclear career goals,” he said. But during his time in the Marines, he developed a strong sense of responsibility, maturity and leadership, and learned stress management and prioritization skills.

“All of these acquired skills and traits have made my first semester back at college a seamless transition,” he said. “My renewed sense of drive and responsibility have made my coursework and grades seem like it was from a completely different person from five years ago.”

Following graduation, Humphreys plans to seek employment with either a federal agency or a large defense company as an intelligence analyst. This summer, he will serve as a research intern in Graham’s Red Cell Analytics Lab.

Another student who will be working in the Red Cell lab this summer, Andrew Lindenbaum, pursued security and risk analysis for the intelligence and modeling option. A former Marine who served in combat Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, he also has worked for the Department of State providing personal security detail protection for high-ranking diplomats and other government officials in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"I felt like [the SRA] degree path would enable me to further serve my nation on varying paradigms," he said.

Lindenbaum also states that the teamwork skills that he developed in the military have carried over into his academic work in the College of IST.

"[In the Marines] I had to work in austere team environments with a multitude of personalities," he said. "The ability to communicate effectively is a paramount skillset to any team environment and has especially helped me in the team-centric environment of IST and SRA."

Remembering a fallen hero

Given the college’s programs that prepare students for careers in the intelligence and defense sectors, many in IST have the honor of interacting with service men and women during their time on campus. One such individual is Marine Capt. Samuel Schultz, who was killed in a military training exercise on April 3.

Like Graham, Schultz, a 2012 graduate of the College of IST and Penn State Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corp, also had his sights set on being a Marine officer and an aviator.

Graham said that he and Schultz kept in close contact following Schultz’s graduation, and that the two communicated just two weeks before the accident.

“He was one of those kids that really stands out,” Graham said, explaining that Schultz was a good student and good analyst that would have been successful in a number of career fields.

“The fact that he chose to go into the military and ultimately gave his life in that service is telling,” he added. “He truly was one of the one percent.”

Fellow Penn Staters can honor Capt. Schultz’ memory by supporting a scholarship fund in his name. The award will benefit a top-performing midshipman in the NROTC at Penn State.

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Last Updated May 25, 2018