Harford Community College students studying cybersecurity and information assurance now have classroom spaces where they can gain hands-on experience as they learn how to defend institutions and infrastrcture from cyber attacks.
Local, state and federal dignitaries got to see those spaces in Joppa Hall during Friday morning's grand opening ceremony for the college's new Cybersecurity Labs.
The dignitaries, along with students from Harford Technical High School, heard from students working toward degrees and certificates in cybersecurity and information assurance and got to tour the labs and see demonstrations from faculty and students.
"With the labs, we can actually do hands-on stuff," HCC student Trevor Smith said.
The 19-year-old Jarrettsville resident is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in cybersecurity and information assurance, as well as professional certificates in information assurance and cyber defense.
"Most of my experience is without the lab, and I complained a little bit that we didn't have hands-on experience," Smith noted.
He said the labs allow students to experience what they have been learning in the classroom "and perform actual live attacks."
He stressed the live attacks are done on "virtual machines," not actual computers or networks. He gave a demonstration during the grand opening, showing a cyberattack on a virtual computer running a Linux operating system.
"With the lab, I think its a great program," Smith said.
He also praised his instructors, who he noted are "very helpful."
"They know what they're talking about," Smith continued. "They can answer any question you ask them."
He plans to continue studying cybersecurity at University of Maryland University College.
The cybersecurity and information technology programs at HCC helped the institution gain the title of National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency in 2015.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who stepped down in 2016 after representing Maryland in Washington, D.C. for 30 years, visited HCC in the summer of 2015 to celebrate the designation with college officials.
Student Robin Hexter showered praise on the cybersecurity program during Friday's grand opening.
She was investigating master's degree programs in cybersecurity before she applied to HCC. She learned many master's degree programs did not offer professional certifications or a path to getting those certificates, no internships or cooperative education opportunities, and there was very little hands-on learning.
Hexter said she applied to HCC's program after an associate recommended a two-year college.
She is now preparing to finish college and enter a 52-week cooperative education program, or co-op, at the Department of Defense, which she said "dovetails so well with my Harford Community College education."
"I have a high probability that I am going to land a job, either with the Department of Defense or some other cybersecurity company," she said.
Hexter noted she has also saved about $60,000 by going the community college route.
She described HCC faculty as "awesome," "flexible" and "accommodating."
"They are bringing real-world perspectives to the classrooms," Hexter said.
She noted there will be more than 1.4 million jobs available in the cybersecurity field by 2019.
Grant money, which comes to the college through the federal TAACCCT — Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training — program, was used to set up the cybersecurity labs.
A donation from the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Women in Defense, a professional organization for women who work in national security fields, also went to the new cybersecurity labs, according to Dawn Grissom, the college's TAACCCT grant project director.
The college uses TAACCCT grant money to support its cyberdefense certificate, Grissom said.
The new labs drew praise and proclamations from elected officials, such as County Executive Barry Glassman and state Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, who toured the lab Friday.
College leaders also praised the new facilities. James McCauley, a member of the Board of Trustees, said after the ceremony that the labs are "terrific," and he expects they will help the cybersecurity program get better over time.
"For a two-year college, it's really a top-notch facility," McCauley said.
Aegis photographer Matt Button contributed to this report.