I first heard of SFS (now cosponsored by the Department of Homeland Security) when I joined the Computer Science and Information Technology faculty at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) in the summer of 2002. Faculty discussed how the program fit with our departmental and university goals, the department's research focus, and our status as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education. The excellent fit compelled me to take the lead in proposing an SFS program at NMT. Here, I outline both SFS in general (http://www.sfs.opm.gov) and NMT's specific program (www.cs.nmt.edu/~SFS).
The two primary requirements for participation are student desire and ability to work in information assurance in federal civil service. Specifically, students must have
• US citizenship,
• the ability to get a clearance,
• a sincere desire to work in civil service with a focus on information assurance,
• an excellent academic record, and
• at least two years of combined education and experience in information assurance before graduation.
SFS's service component is working in federal civil service. Students repay their scholarship year for year with paid employment. They can choose any civil service position with a significant information assurance component, such as in the executive branch at a federal agency, independent agency, government corporation, commission, or quasi-official agency (for a list of eligible agencies, see www.firstgov.gov/Agencies/Federal/Executive.shtml FirstGov). A limited number of students can take positions with national research laboratories—for example, Sandia National Laboratories. The required internship lets students try an agency before starting long-term employment.
At NMT's SFS program, we typically require undergraduates to have a 3.0 GPA and graduates to have a 3.5 GPA. Students must also demonstrate their excitement about information assurance and government employment by giving an information assurance presentation to our selection board. This helps us assess the students' professionalism and knowledge. Before entering the program, some incoming students know little about information assurance but show great interest and excitement about the topic. The student presentations also give the selection board a starting point on what education and development will best help students succeed academically and professionally. I use this information as a starting point for advising students about course selection, research direction, and professional development.
SFS pays students to finish their degrees and then helps them find civil service positions. Students can participate for up to two years. Normally, internships are paid. The scholarship pay is $8,000 per academic year for undergraduates and $12,000 for graduates. Additionally, institutions might cover school expenses and help the students find summer internships. Although I only discuss NMT students, for most of the programs, most school-related expenses are covered. It's hard to beat a program that pays students to finish college and receive great education and experience—and also provides paid internships, paid government jobs, and supportive colleagues to correspond with when they need help.
In the NMT program, students receive not only their stipend but also tuition, room, board, all lab fees, and an Internet connection. The program even covers student health insurance. Students also receive a laptop computer and, to the extent possible, whatever they need for research. We reimburse for textbooks and possibly for reference materials as well.
After NMT students are accepted into the SFS program, they all become my advisees. Because I meet with each student for at least two hours a week, I usually have a better understanding of where they are and what they need to accomplish than most advisors would have. In fact, many of our students were my advisees before they entered the SFS program; I saw that they were outstanding students, and we recruited them. This intense interaction also helps our students keep on track for graduation and government placement.
To prepare for government employment, students take a professional development course that I teach each semester. There, students polish resumes that specifically target government information assurance jobs for the specific area they're most excited about. They learn to present technical material professionally and practice presentation skills. We also study appropriate government standards and regulations.
Our students come from various disciplines, including computer science, information technology, management, mathematics, technical communications, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and physics. Furthermore, our students research across a broad array of topics: intrusion detection, two-factor authentication, digital forensics, policy, and the application of techniques from other fields (such as bioinformatics and management) to information assurance. The students critique their peers' work and presentation skills, giving them experience in critically analyzing others' work and responding to such critiques. This range of disciplines and research areas ensures that students are capable of communicating with everyone from geeks to managers.
To further strengthen and build the cohort, we hold all-hands research meetings after professional development course meetings. There, all students give a brief update on their research, including their progress, plans for the next week, any problems, and so forth. This supplements our smaller, more focused research meetings by letting everyone comment on all the research. Students often have suggestions for circumventing problems with other students' work. This meeting is informal to the point of sometimes breaking out in Nerf gun wars. However, it has helped undergraduates make progress on what is typically their first research project and has strengthened the cohort so students become partners in their education and research.
At NMT, we also have various group activities. Some are service related—for example, last year the SFS group helped me run labs for the Computer Boot Camp program, where incoming freshmen build a computer from scratch and install and administer Linux and Windows. The SFS students even taught computer-security-related topics including email security, virus scanners, and firewalls. On the fun side, we have events like the SFS graduation party for all SFS students and their families.
Benefits for government agencies
Given the need for more information assurance professionals in the government, it's not hard to see SFS's benefits for the agencies. They get well-trained information assurance employees who want to work in federal civil service. They even get help finding those employees. The Office of Personnel Management provides a Web site where students post their resumes and agencies can search for the specific skills their employees need.
To place our students in jobs, I work closely with several specific recruiters in agencies to get the right match with my students and the agency's needs. My students have had internships with the Army Research Laboratory at White Sands, the US Department of Agriculture, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, China Lake, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Government Accounting Office.
I've also worked with students who have received permanent positions at the US Army Corps of Engineers, National Security Agency, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Army Research Laboratory at White Sands, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Many students now get multiple offers, and some have more trouble choosing the best offer than getting offers at all.
Both the national SFS program and NMT's local program are works in progress. The national program has recently allowed students to delay service to obtain an advanced degree before placement. We continue to add features such as symposium speakers and conference attendance (funding permitting), and we'll soon be funding our first SFS PhD student. In addition, we're continually seeking new professional development and student activities and integrating them in the program.
In future columns, I plan to discuss the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, as well as the types of research that the students have conducted.
Lorie M. Liebrock
is an assistant professor of computer science and information technology, an adjunct professor of management, and the principal investigator for the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology's Scholarship For Service Program. Contact her at email@example.com.