CSL/ITI professor receives an additional $4M from NSF for cybersecurity scholarships


Jenny Applequist/Allie Arp, CSL

Modern life depends on the stability and security of computers and networks, yet there are nowhere near enough qualified cybersecurity professionals to meet the nation’s needs — and CSL and ITI are doing their part to help. For a decade, the Illinois Cyber Security Scholars Program (ICSSP) has been offering undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scholarships in exchange for government service after graduation.

The scholarships provide full tuition plus a generous stipend, enabling talented students to pursue cybersecurity studies without worrying about financial pressures. The scholarships are being offered under funding from the National Science Foundation’s nationwide Scholarship for Service program. Under the program’s terms, once students have graduated, they must work for the government for as many years as they received funding support. In addition to helping students achieve career goals, the program is also helping provide the government with a vital pipeline of trained cybersecurity workers.

“As cyber threats continue to increase in volume, sophistication, and severity, there is a huge shortage of cybersecurity professionals and researchers around the world to defend against and prevent such threats, meaning that millions of jobs are cur
rently unfilled and even more will be needed in the future,” said Masooda Bashir, who is PI of the program and an associate professor in CSL, ITI, and the School of Information Sciences. “One of the reasons the government is offering this program is that we need to build a workforce that protects information infrastructure and is sensitive to the privacy, security, and ethics aspects of information systems that are critical to society. We need graduates from top universities such as Illinois to be working on these problems.”

More than 60 students have successfully completed the ICSSP program to date, supported by over $10 million in NSF funding. Because of the strong success of previous ICSSP graduates, NSF has renewed the program repeatedly. “We’ve been able to renew the program twice, allowing us to celebrate the 10-year anniversary this year,” said Bashir. Thanks to the most recent funding extension of $4M, the scholarships will be offered for at least four more years.

For some participants, this career opportunity has been a dream come true.

“I’m very big on doing things that are impactful, important and useful, and I’ve always wanted to work for the government,” said Shayna Kapadia, a senior majoring in computer engineering. “With all the options I’ve seen with the way my career could go, this seemed the most impactful.”

Kapadia is one of eight new students who joined this year. According to Bashir, the program selects students who are smart, model citizens who want to work for the government; applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

In addition to receiving funding support, scholarship winners attend a specially developed seminar series and receive one-on-one mentorship and advising from Bashir and other ITI/CSL professors, including Roy Campbell (from Computer Science), Kirill Levchenko (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Adam Bates (Computer Science). They also receive help with networking and finding internships and jobs, and they get to learn directly from past program participants.

“Our alumni are actively in contact with us; they give talks to current students, and provide mentorship,” said Bashir. “Even after they finish the obligatory contract, we’re still in contact with them and invite them to come back to mentor current students.”

As always, the program is open to Grainger College of Engineering students; this year, for the first time, students in the School of Information Sciences are also eligible. Applications for scholarships starting in Fall 2020 will open in the early spring. For more information about the program, curriculum, or requirements, visit the ICSSP website.