WCC cybersecurity program has become national leader

Corrinne Sande, director of computer science and information systems at Whatcom Community College, in the server room at the school Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Corrinne Sande, director of computer science and information systems at Whatcom Community College, in the server room at the school Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

The computer information systems program at Whatcom Community College was different when John Miller studied at the college more than a decade ago.

“When I went through the program, we were hanging wires from the ceilings, just trying to get things to work,” Miller said.

These days, students no longer have to worry about wires hanging from the ceiling. But the philosophy of giving students at WCC hands-on experience has endured, even today, as the college’s nationally recognized cybersecurity and computer information systems program continues to lead the region in its field.

Miller graduated from WCC in 2002 — a year when a total of 12 students graduated with CIS degrees. He then transferred to Western Washington University to earn a degree in management information systems and a master’s in business. He is now a manager at Vitech, a Bellingham-based supply chain solutions company that provides support for daily operations of businesses. Some of those businesses include Fox Racing, Kate Spade New York and Guitar Center.

Miller is on the advisory committee for the college’s CIS program and said he often looks to WCC graduates when hiring.

“As far as the quality of students that come out of Whatcom, they’re great,” Miller said. “I think it says something that every time we hire, I will contact (Corrinne Sande) and ask her for recommendations.”

Nationally recognized program

Sande is WCC’s technology department chair, and she has been credited with building the CIS program into what it is today.

She arrived in 1999 when it was a computer support specialist program. At the time, the facilities were not advanced, with only two small labs, one of which was a former math classroom.

The program’s classrooms and labs were upgraded in summer 2014, using a grant from the National Science Foundation. Today, the CIS program has three labs, a lab development room, two classrooms, a storage room and a networking room.

The curriculum was improved with the help of a $50,000 grant from Northwest Center for Emerging Technologies, located on Bellevue College’s campus, in the early 2000s. Other grants from the the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation soon followed.

Sande was the only full-time instructor from the day she arrived in 1999, and she continued to be the only instructor until 2014. She is not currently teaching, so she can focus on administrative duties, but there is another full-time instructor along with four adjunct or part-time faculty members involved with the CIS program. The college will be hiring another full-time instructor next year.

“My approach is that I’m teaching people to go do a job,” Sande said. “The program has been built over the years based upon what was needed in the industry and what was coming down the road.”

The strength of teaching CIS programs in a community college is that classes are often more hands-on, she said, compared to a university where classes are based more on theory.

Beyond the classroom experience, graduates can tell employers they were part of a program that has been recognized nationally as a leader in cybersecurity. The college is the lead institution of CyberWatch West — a consortium of colleges that have partnered to increase the quality of the cybersecurity workforce in the country. The “west” region covers Texas to Hawaii.

In October 2014, WCC became one of the first community colleges in the U.S. to be designated a national center of academic excellence by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

“This is really a very exceptional program,” said Curt Freed, Whatcom’s vice president for instruction. “Graduates come with a very special pedigree. A lot of that is because of Corrinne’s work and the leadership that she has done through the work at the college here to grow cybersecurity programs in the state and the region.”

Future growth

Student enrollment in the program has increased an average of 18 percent over the past four years. Last year, Whatcom had 218 students enrolled in CIS program courses.

Sande hopes the program will grow, as the college will be able to offer a four-year baccalaureate degree in information technology networking come fall 2017. The college was recently approved by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to offer the four-year degree.

Before, there were students who wanted to earn a four-year degree but some were unable to transfer to Western Washington University for various reasons, Sande said. Soon, they will be able to stay at WCC.

“That’s going to be a real game changer in this community,” Freed said.

In August 2015, the college announced it had received two grants from the National Science Foundation totaling $6.4 million.

One grant, of over $2 million, will provide three years of funding for CyberWatch West. The $4 million grant will help WCC create a computer science course with cybersecurity incorporated into the class and join a network of colleges meeting higher national standards of computing education. That will enable WCC to mentor other colleges pursuing the designation of national center of academic excellence.

“The grants for Whatcom Community College’s cybersecurity program will further Washington state’s role as a leader and hub for cybersecurity,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, said when the grants were announced. “Investing in educational opportunities nationwide is critical to developing the workforce needed to defend our economy and our nation from increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks and cyberthreats.”

Sande said the CIS and cybersecurity program will always have to adapt to new technology, but the hands-on approach at WCC will stay the same.

“That’s really the goal,” she said. “Because the field changes so much, you’re constantly having to learn new things, so the primary skill is the ability to teach yourself.”