FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. –
The growth of the Cyber National Mission Force and other mission areas within U.S. Cyber Command has created the need for more talent within the STEM fields at the Command. To meet this need, the Premier College Intern Program brings in talented undergraduate and graduate level students and gives them the opportunity to experience what it is like working on special projects in a classified environment.
In 2018, the Air Force introduced the PCIP, a 10-12 week summer internship experience that infuses entry-level collegiate talent into Air Force and certain Joint military formations.
Because of current and projected growth, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, charged the Command to grow its collegiate information technology and cyber talent. USCYBERCOM launched its inaugural PCIP in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many internships were cancelled worldwide, the Air Force and USCYBERCOM flexed to develop an innovative solution by offering the PCIP virtually. During the inaugural 2020 summer, the first-ever USCYBERCOM Premier College Interns, completed a rigorous curriculum, attended virtual seminars and symposiums, and worked on unclassified Air Force and USCYBERCOM projects. Additionally, the Command offered cyber and IT-specific experiences, mentor engagements, and formal individual development plan offerings such as mission briefs, virtual field trips and teambuilding activities.
This year, the Command was able to fully integrate interns into the building and the mission for the first time. On June 7 2021, the Command’s four Premier College Interns launched their service to the nation by accepting their oath of civilian service from the USCYBERCOM Manpower and Personnel Director, Col. Sharon Nickelberry.
Slated to receive his diploma in 2022, Jimmy Rodriguez is a senior studying information technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He participated in the program this year and last.
Rodriguez spent his virtual PCIP experience assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2020 conducting multi domain command and control research as well as attending required seminars to learn about the Air Force since the program is ran by the Air Force Civilian Service.
While initially hesitant to attend PCIP again due to the limitations of the virtual experience, Rodriguez says he is glad he did.
“I decided to try again, and I was just blown away,” he said. “This was nothing like last year. It was the first time anyone in my family has set foot in a government building. The base is huge - it’s amazing. It felt like walking into a whole new world. I definitely saw a future here.”
The 2021, in-person PCIP was Rodriguez’ fourth internship, and according to him, his best internship experience yet.
“This [USCYBERCOM internship] doesn’t really match the rest of them,” said Rodrigues. “This is completely 100% what an internship should be. I had not one, not two, but three mentors that constantly checked up on me and gave me advice. There were some moments where I had to get out of my comfort zone. I would have to give a brief or presentation or talk to leadership. It helped me with my confidence and it gave me experience – really setting me up for success.”
Rodriguez helped develop capabilities for USCYBERCOM’s Cyber 9-Line, a tool that furthers information sharing abilities. The biggest difference between this internship and past ones was the amount of trust placed in him to conduct his mission, Rodriguez said.
“With previous internships, it was kind of like they never really trusted me or wanted me to work on anything sensitive,” he said. “But this one they completely trusted me. This was a crucial mission. They told me I did a good job. At this point it’s not very different from how it will be when I start actually working here.”
Matching Talent, Opportunity
While the Command’s mission of defending national interests in cyberspace necessitates focusing on STEM field majors, Jaime Evans Woodard, the Workforce Integration and Strategic Programs Division Chief at USCYBERCOM, says PCIP is open to various types of students.
“Given the current growth projections, programs like PCI are predominantly STEM related,” said Woodard. “Our student and entry-level programs must grow the future workforce. PCI brings the vital STEM talent to the USCYBERCOM formation now and develops the candidate into a vital mission contributor.”
When a prospective university student is being considered for the USCYBERCOM PCIP, they are assigned a project. The amount of details that can be shared with prospective interns prior to their arrival varies based on sensitivities.
USCYBERCOM also welcomes military interns from the Service Academies and ROTC each summer, with this year being no exception. Sixteen cadets and midshipmen from various military collegiate programs had the chance to intern at the Command. The PCIP gives civilian college students the opportunity to serve their nation in a similar capacity.
Aura Teasley, a graduate student at the University of Texas San Antonio, said the lack of details surrounding her prospective project was different from normal job descriptions.
“At first, coming in there are layers of obscurity,” said Teasley. “You definitely can’t know much until you’re actually inside.”
Once inside, Teasley was able to work on various projects and make a real impact to the Command’s mission. She urges others to not be deterred and persevere through the candidacy process.
“You may not get a lot from the description,” she said. “But know that there’s so much work and worth that you can gain from being here. Do not be scared about the opportunity to come here because it is a very valuable place.”
Like Rodriguez, Teasley also felt this internship to be quite different from her past experiences.
“It’s a stark difference,” said Teasley. “Here I felt like I was actually in a workspace [with] a lot of moving parts and a lot of busy things happening. You actually had a project or several projects going on at once.”
Teasley is about to receive a master’s degree in electrical engineering. She is also a PhD candidate who is planning on continuing research in electrical engineering and plans to research best practices for securing the devices she develops.
What she learned throughout her time in college prepared her for the projects she worked on during her internship. While developing new software, Teasley and her team had to adhere to certain constraints that required them to be inventive.
“I was able to use some of the topics I learned in university such as virtual machines and containerized environments, and I made all the necessary things to build our software and that nice small packet,” said Teasley. “I was able to publish it both as something that any user can interact with and also as a webpage so anybody who’s not strong with virtual environments could click a few buttons and access the same service.”
Teasley said she was able to learn a lot during her time at USCYBERCOM that she will bring back with her to the UTSA lab when she begins her research this fall.
“I feel like almost every week or every day I am getting something new,” said Teasley. “Several times I have emailed my professor saying ‘I just learned something cool today I wanted you to know.’ So I learned so, so much here.”
Her supervisor set up times for her to talk to people at the Command who specialize in her field of research.
“In my research I’m interested in securing my devices,” said Teasley. “And just in those two hour talks they told me ways that my device was weak that I didn’t even know were possible. I’m taking all that back.”
William Groover is a senior computer science major at Georgia Institute of Technology, College of Computing, and is minoring in computing and business through the Denning Technology and Management Program.
After four previous internships in academia, the private sector, and a Fortune 100 company, Groover says his 2021 USCYBERCOM internship at Fort Meade stands out to him.
“I feel like I found a hidden gem,” said Groover.
When asked if he would recommend the internship to other students, Groover stated, “Absolutely! I would sell it to them.”
Groover supported multiple cyber exercises while serving at USCYBERCOM, including Cyber Flag 21-2, the Department of Defense’s premier cyber exercise that utilizes a virtual training environment for tactical competition between allied cyberspace components.
“I can confidently say I will never forget being coined by General Nakasone for my contribution to the cyber exercise,” said Groover. “I feel so lucky to have been able to experience that as part of my internship.”
Vitally immersed in the mission at the conclusion of his internship, Groover’s experience at the Command was extended so he could support another cyber exercise.
"Even with the high expectations I had when I arrived, I was blown away and humbled by the learning opportunities provided and the caliber of men and women that surrounded me during my time at the Command,” said Groover. “I had a summer I will never forget."
Ethan Marshall is a senior at Middle Georgia State University studying information technology with a concentration in cybersecurity. He found out about the program from his older brother who is part of an entry-level development program at USCYBERCOM called the Recent Graduate/Palace Acquire Program (PAQ).
The PAQ program is designed to develop recent graduate students into permanent employees, filling important mission areas through a formal force renewal program sponsored by the Air Force. The PCIP feeds into the PAQ program, meaning successful students who graduate PCIP may be eligible to return as PAQ Recent Graduates after they receive their collegiate diploma. Applicants do not have to have been a Premier College intern to become a Palace Acquire intern however. Palace Acquire is designed to place recent graduates into a full-time position upon conclusion of their two- to three-year program. During the multi-year development program, recent graduates are paid full-time (GS-07/09/11) salaries in addition to receiving incentives such as 100% tuition assistance, sign-on bonus, student loan repayment, and relocation moving assistance. The aim of the program is to develop the recent graduate professionally and personally, targeting them to fill permanent mid-level civilian positions within the Command upon successful completion of the program.
Upon completion of his degree, Marshall intends to return to the Command as a PAQ. For now, during the PCIP, Marshall works on projects related to combatting ransomware.
“We are diving into intel to be able to make an attribution and understand the characteristics of new ransomware to learn how we can better combat them,” said Marshall.
Ethan, a PCI trailblazer at USCYBERCOM, now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow cyber warriors, not only serving as a summer intern in 2020 and 2021 but also continuing service at USCYBERCOM during his collegiate studies in the spring, fall and winter. When Marshall first started at USCYBERCOM as a PCIP however, he said the hardest part was not the mission, but earning the respect of his older coworkers. Although he is close to obtaining his undergraduate degree, Marshall is just 19 years old.
“Everyone’s senior compared to me,” said Marshall. “You could say I had to earn their respect and it takes time to have them understand that you’re knowledgeable, there are no stupid ideas, and that I might be 19 years old but I can throw around ideas and understand things.”
While that was the toughest part for Marshall, he says the best part was being able to contribute to something worthwhile.
“I wanted to be able to use my skills to help the greater good," said Marshall. “And I could do that here more than I would be able to in the private sector.”
Marshall says he turned down other job requests because he wanted to work and apply his skills somewhere he could make an impact.
“I would definitely recommend it to people,” said Marshal. “If you get into it, you’ll love it - from my experience and the other interns experience, they seem to enjoy it as well.”
Ready to Serve at USCYBERCOM?
One aspect that all interns interviewed for this story agreed on, was that this internship program was exceptionally hands on. They felt that they were trusted with the projects they were assigned, and that they were able to contribute to the mission in meaningful ways.
Rodriguez said the USCYBERCOM mission statement he was provided with during the application process aligned with what he was looking for in a career.
“I want to be behind a mission and feel like I contributed to something,” said Rodriguez. “I certainly didn’t feel like that in private sector internships. Here at Cyber Command I really did feel like I contributed to something. What we did made America a little bit safer, or a little bit more secure.”
Jenna White, the USCYBERCOM PCI Program Manager, said the program, was a success.
“I’m certainly proud of each and every one of these Premiere College Interns,” said White. “They’ve persistently engaged all summer and it’s very rewarding to see. I have great hope for the future of cyber and am excited to keep up relationships with the interns and continue to connect others to wonderful programs like this where we can make a difference at U.S. Cyber Command.”
Ending the summer on a high note, the PCIs conducted a final project brief to USCYBERCOM Commander Gen. Nakasone. Highlighting each PCI as a trailblazer during their farewell ceremony, Nakasone praised the interns for their contributions to the mission and acknowledged their contributions with a commander’s coin.
White added that USCYBERCOM is currently accepting applications for the highly competitive, full-time, paid, summer positions for 2022 and beyond. Qualified applicants will be considered for various projects based on interest, skills and qualifications to work in the requesting Directorate or Cyber National Mission Force. The summer internship is open to current college/university students (sophomores and juniors). Graduate students may apply who are currently enrolled in a full-time graduate program and can provide documentation that they will have completed a minimum of 15 graduate semester hours prior to starting the summer internship. Interns are appointed in term competitive service positions under Direct Hire Authority at entry-level grades (GS-03 through GS-07) based on college credits and degree levels earned. Applicants should submit their resume to Cyber_Recruiting@cybercom.mil
To find out more information about the summer internship and recent graduate opportunities discussed in this article, you can visit afciviliancareers.com/students-and-graduates/ as well as cybercom.mil/employment-opportunities/