New York college student is on a path to cybersecurity excellence
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In 1886, newspaper editor and perennial New York State politician Gideon John Tucker wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” Since that day, those words have been used regularly to impugn and malign the honesty and intellectual ability of legislators everywhere.
While a great many of us do look suspiciously upon the doings of our duly elected representatives, however, those same leaders have managed, albeit with a few close calls, to keep the lights on and our nation functioning.
The truth is that most legislators are doing the best that they can at a difficult job and, in many instances, have come up with and implemented some very good ideas. One gem in particular came about in 1948, when the New York State Assembly created the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
BOCES operate as extensions of local school districts, helping them meet their educational and financial goals by offering shared educational programs and services that individual districts by themselves might not be able to offer. The program provides training to hundreds of thousands of New York students, preparing them for post-secondary education and professional careers.
Presently, 37 BOCES in New York State are helping provide leadership and developing the capacity of 950 districts to enhance and improve student achievement. Each day, more than 40,000 students participate in any of dozens of BOCES-sponsored and technical programs.
One in-demand program is the Cisco Networking/Computer Repair course, offered by the BOCES in the rural New York town of Ulster. This is an intensive program where students learn to design, develop, support, and manage hardware, software, multimedia, and systems integration services. Students who complete this program are more than ready to step up to higher education circles.
On her way up
One recent alum of Ulster’s BOCES is Georgiannah Landers, age 20, who completed her training in 2017 and has since been carving out her own path in cybersecurity at Utica College in upstate New York. If ever anyone was born to become an IT professional, it is Landers.
Born and raised in Hyde Park, N.Y., by a mother who was an accomplished IT professional, Landers couldn’t help but be immersed in tech. “My mom, Kathy Landers, had a great career working in Networking and IT Security at IBM for 22 years,” said Landers. “After that she went on to teach networking and cybersecurity at our local BOCES.”
In addition to her lifetime of work experience, Mom is also impressively credentialed, with master’s degrees in education and information technology, and is presently finishing a Ph.D. dissertation in Educational Technology. To top it off, Landers’ godfather, who played an important part in her life, was the Chief Internet Architect at IBM before retiring.
Although she grew up in an IT-rich environment, Landers’ career selection was left entirely up to her. “I never told my children what to choose as a career; I left the decisions entirely up to them,” Kathie Landers said. “Georgie just seemed drawn to IT. She likes to understand how things work and IT is a great field for doing that, especially in cybersecurity.”
Landers’ interest in tech took root early as she frequently attended classes taught by her mother. Once in the classroom, she would poke around spare computers, constantly asking questions about various components.
Her innate curiosity sometimes led to awkward moments: “I remember once at age 9, I was in my mother’s class and, without thinking, I started touching and tinkering around with a student’s laptop,” said Landers. “I was pretty embarrassed when mom noticed and told me to stop.”
Driven to succeed
Interest alone isn’t enough to obtain proficiency in IT, of course. One also needs determination, discipline, and a willingness to sacrifice fun — and oftentimes sleep. As exhibited by her daily schedule, Landers possessed each of those traits.
“At age 16, my schedule was pretty full,” she said. Arising each morning at 6:30 a.m., Landers would drive more than 45 minutes to attend classes at Ulster by 8:00 a.m. Once her IT courses were complete, she would jump in her car and drive another 45 minutes to Franklin D. Roosevelt High School to complete her regular classes.
As if 90 minutes of daily driving and a full load of high school classes weren’t enough, Landers somehow managed to squeeze in time to earn college credits from both Ulster Community College and SUNY-ESF. “I was really busy, but I enjoyed what I was doing,” she said.
She also worked a number of different jobs during high school. And not make-work jobs either, but jobs that required attention to detail and responsibility. She has worked as a waitress in a pizzeria, as a day care provider at a local gym, and as a lifeguard. She viewed work as a way to help her learn important skills.
“I didn’t mind working,” said Landers. “Each of my jobs helped me learn responsibility and customer service skills, things every young person should learn.”
Soft skills and customer service are important to Landers, and she cautions young people to be respectful and patient when helping someone with a tech problem. “You definitely have to treat customers with respect and patience,” she said. “No matter what, you can’t be rude, even if the customer might be.
“This is especially so working in IT because people may not understand what you are saying. So you have to break it down and repeat the info in little pieces.”
For two summers Landers also worked as an assistant to several building technicians at BOCES. This position enabled her to really roll up her sleeves and dive headlong into help-desk activities, installing and upgrading computers assigned to administration and staff.
The summer between her junior and senior years she worked for BOCES inventorying and cleaning more computers than she can remember, in preparation for the coming school year. “We worked in teams of four cleaning and servicing more than 100 computers a day,” said Landers. “All summer long, a whole lot of cleaning and tagging of computers.”
During the school year, Landers was quick to appreciate the importance of her BOCES courses and their tangible value for college and a career. “I was learning real-world skills,” she said. “I knew they would help me in college and contribute toward getting a great job one day.”
Like teacher, like student
One facet of IT instruction that helped Landers master the subject matter was a steady diet of hands-on lab work. Daily course work involved hands-on hardware or lab simulations which she eagerly embraced. “I loved our lab simulations because I wasn’t just sitting at my desk and listening to a lecture, I was actually doing!”
Landers describes herself as a visual learner, and praised the learning impact of her many lab simulations. “They really helped the subject matter stick in my head, especially when doing networking,” she said.
Landers considers herself “very lucky” to have had so many lab simulations in her courses. “My IT program was formative; we could redo labs as many times as we wanted and keep our highest grade on the lab. The emphasis was on developing the skills to prepare for certifications.”
She was also quick to recognize the value employers place on certifications, particularly when it came to higher-than-average salaries — something that was regularly stressed in class. “We had copies of Certification Magazine in the classroom and we read them, especially the Salary Survey issues,” said Landers.
“Seeing how employers valued and required certain certifications helped me appreciate the need to prepare for and earn my certifications.”
Landers has a bit of a competitive nature and it came out as she prepared for and earned her certifications. She currently holds PC Pro and Network Pro certifications from TestOut, and credentials in PC Hardware and Software, Linux, Networking, and IT Security from Cisco Networking Academy. She also received a letter of congratulations from the CEO of Cisco for completing all her requirements.
She was also fortunate to have an instructor who took a special interest in her IT path. Kathy Landers was her daughter’s instructor at BOCES, and it was, Georgiannah said, interesting. She laughingly admits to some awkwardness at having her mother also be her teacher.
“It sometimes seemed a bit odd having my mother as the teacher,” she said. “Especially when, as a freshman, the seniors in the class learned we were related.”
Kathy Landers didn’t go easy on her offspring and in so doing helped to instill discipline and academic rigor in Georgiannah. “She was tough on me, but that was a good thing, because I came to college very well prepared. She pushed me to always do my best.”
It turns out that when it comes to keeping a schedule and being thorough, it’s helpful to have some parental oversight. As Landers put it, “I always had to have all my homework completed before going out with friends. I couldn’t just say that I had done all my homework because she could easily check my work.”
Cruising through college
After high school Landers chose to attend Utica College for a number of reasons: her mother was from the area and spoke highly of it, her grandmother was an alum, and Utica had the best cybersecurity program in the state. “Growing up, I wanted to be a cop,” said Landers. “Mom introduced me around campus. I met the professors and my heart was set on attending.”
Investigating cybercrime appeals to Landers’ inquisitive nature. According to her mother, “She always enjoyed watching crime shows and trying to figure out who the culprit was and how they had committed their crimes.”
Now in her sophomore year at Utica, Landers is thriving. She currently has straight As in her classes and is working as a teaching assistant for professor Joseph Giordano, Chair of Cybersecurity and Information Assurance. Giordano has vast experience working with computer forensics and cybersecurity and Landers is soaking up knowledge like a sponge.
“Georgie is a superb student,” said Giordano. “I have been teaching for 17 years and she is one of the best students I’ve ever had.” Landers has done such an excellent job as Giordano’s teaching assistant that he plans on having her assist in more classes in the coming semester.
In addition to being bright and working hard, according to Giordano, Landers brings a lot of positivity and humor to the classroom. “Regardless of what needs to be done, she is always so positive. It’s great to have that in a student.”
Called to serve
Speaking with Landers, it’s easy to feel that positive energy, something she said she has always possessed. “My sister always said, ‘I don’t know where you got your positive attitude.’ I guess I just learned it at home,” said Landers. “Being positive makes me happy and I think it’s really important to be happy. Whatever happens in life, you just have to look at the positive.”
Landers even has a tattoo reflecting her positive attitude. The tattoo records her favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 31:25, which reads: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. “I’m confident in my strengths and my ability to learn. I don’t fear the future, I’m actually excited for it,” she said.
A member of the Methodist Church in Hyde Park, Landers takes seriously the Bible’s admonition to care for those in need. “I believe I have an obligation to help others and that I can use my tech skills to do so,” she said.
Although humble about it, her record of serving others is impressive. While at school she regularly participates in community service days. Each Sunday when at home, she pitches in at a community food pantry, and for four years in a row she has served mission trips to Maryland to help repair homes of senior citizens.
“On the mission trips we worked in teams of three doing basic remodeling projects like adding a deck, painting, and so forth,” she said. “It’s great to get to know the homeowners and to bond with other volunteers. The people I met were so amazing. They had a love for the work and the people we served.”
Landers sees her IT skills and knowledge as giving her a special opportunity to help others. One unique service mission that opened her eyes to that possibility was in Zimbabwe, where she helped do some repairs at a birthing clinic. That experience, Landers said, “took me completely out of my comfort zone.”
Her time at the clinic has had a powerful impact on how she views life. “We were building sidewalks between the various sections of the clinic, and with little access to our electronics, I realized the importance of stepping back from technology and just enjoying being with the ones who surround and love you. Appreciate them and realize why you love them,” said Landers.
A bright future ahead
Asked why she goes on these missions to help others, Landers responded, “I guess I just love traveling and helping people. Not everyone comes from a great place in life and it’s important to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Even at school Landers seeks to make a positive impact on others. At the encouragement of her mother, Landers takes every opportunity to speak with younger girls about the advantages of a cybersecurity career.
“There aren’t many females in the field and we can do it as well as anyone,” she said. “I explain that they can be anything they want to be in the IT field and talk about the opportunities for a great career.”
Utica College’s motto is “Never Stand Still.” The inference is that graduates are to use the talents and abilities developed at Utica to forever be doing good. It’s a clarion call resoundingly answered by the lives and accomplishments of thousands of Utica alumni throughout the world.
It’s also a call that will be answered by current Utica students like Landers. “I am excited about the future, and I know I can be successful in my career aspirations,” she said. “I also know that I’ll be able to utilize my IT training to help improve the lives of others.”