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Volunteering in a pandemic

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Michael Jimenez
  • 960th Cyberspace Wing

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- In March of this year the Freedom Fighters of the 42nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron here, like so many others around the world, found themselves in an unfamiliar paradigm. I had just started to get my feet under me as a squadron superintendent when a global pandemic changed almost everything about how we work, operate and interact with friends and family.  

I began to grapple with how to keep our members engaged in all aspects of being an Airman. There was still work to be done, but how do we volunteer and work in our community when we can barely go outside?

The answer came when I received a call from a squadron officer to discuss an opportunity to put into action some technical expertise “sitting on our shelf” during the pandemic. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with CyberUp.

CyberUp is a non-profit that promotes cyber security training in the St. Louis area. This was our chance to give back to the local community while gaining valuable experience at the same time. 

I had previously worked with CyberUp during National Cyber Security Awareness Month when another Airman and I visited Ferguson Middle School as part of CyberUp’s community outreach program. It was an amazing experience. We were able to speak with over 40 youths about good cyber hygiene, as well as our military experiences. 

Ferguson, Missouri, had been the center of the national discussion on social justice just four years prior when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. This event inevitably left a mark on the community. I only got a small peek into the world of these middle school students, but it opened my eyes to what they have to deal with every single day. 

With that experience at the front of my mind and months of uncertainty ahead, we decided to push on and provide support however we could. It turns out there was plenty of work to be done. Two major areas we were immediately able to support were in the setup and planning for several NCSAM events scheduled in October, and then serving as instructors in CyberUp’s Pre-Apprenticeship Program. 

Seven members of the 42nd COS volunteer on a weekly basis in the program to teach and mentor 20 veterans and military dependents making career changes into information technology. CyberUp received funding from Boeing to put on the 24-week program that covers three IT industry certifications, a voucher to take the CompTIA Security+ certification that is required for many government IT jobs, and then culminates with job interviews with local IT companies.

Classes last three hours every Tuesday night, and the remote delivery method allows us to keep up our volunteer efforts during the COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, the program received a second round of funding allowing our volunteers to continue giving back to the community for another 24 weeks.

The second volunteer effort we took on was preparing for NCSAM and the associated youth engagement sessions, which included weekly hour-long workshops for middle and high school students. As part of this effort we established relationships with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as local IT companies.

The focus of these sessions is on how to stay safe online by incorporating hands-on examples, to include cryptography, password security and even ethical hacking. Also, as part of the NCSAM effort, we are putting on a capture-the-flag event alongside our regular Air Force associate unit, the 835th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, as well as CyberUp and DHS. Our volunteers utilized their cyber skill sets to create unique challenges for this worldwide 24-hour event.

I have found that when you do good things, it generates opportunities to do more good things. This was the case with our relationship with CyberUp. Through them, we were introduced to the organizers of the St. Louis Internship Program, whose mission is to provide opportunities to underprivileged high school students. The students receive paid summer internships, employment training and career or college planning.

This partnership has taken on a new meaning for me in the last few months. With the focus on systemic racism nationwide, I found myself wondering how I could help. How can I make a difference outside my work and family environment? 

SLIP has given me a way to do that. It provided an opportunity to be part of a program that has given over 3,900 youths employment skills, set career goals and ensured high school graduation doesn’t have to be an unrealized dream. 

As part of this program, I was able to sit on a virtual panel grading STEM-related projects. I was presented 20-minute briefings on everything from designing neighborhoods that eliminate bank redlining, where mortgage lenders draw redlines around predominately black and Latino neighborhoods they do not wish to give loans to, to in-depth coding of a website that brings together COVID-19 resources for communities to use to combat the virus.

Some of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math presentations were so impactful and well-delivered that I wanted to hire some of these youths on the spot. I was thoroughly impressed with the presentations we received that day and walked away with a feeling of great hope. 

Additionally, some of our members were able to brief SLIP students on the dangers of critical infrastructure control system vulnerabilities. Many of the students stayed an extra hour just to ask questions and find out more about how to get into cyber security.

The challenges of COVID-19 created opportunities I’m not sure we would’ve been able to take full advantage of in a different situation. Our relationship with CyberUp and SLIP couldn’t have come at a better time.

As a squadron superintendent, I am excited for the future endeavors these relationships will bring and couldn’t be more pleased in a time when “social” seems to be a bad word. In spite of the pandemic, we found a way to stay connected and maintain our relationships with the community.

I’m proud of the Airmen in my unit and thankful to CyberUp for allowing us to join together to make the world a better place. Volunteering in a pandemic is challenging, but I encourage everyone to invest in our future regardless.