Student's working in Pathfinder's cyber workspace

By Shane Klestinski, Associate Editor

 

Forty-five students graduated the six-week Pathfinder Internship program at the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Fairwinds Alumni Center, July 11.

 

Pathfinder began as small pilot program in 2020, born of a congressional mandate that called for a pipeline to develop cyber talent. That mandate trickled down to the Office of Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, who partnered with U.S. Army Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI). Although based in Huntsville, Alabama, Pathfinder falls under PEO STRI’s control.

 

Pathfinder’s paid, summertime internship represents its workforce development program, according to Nick Steward, Pathfinder lead. That program has grown to take on more interns since 2020, and last year the program in Huntsville came close to hitting its maximum capacity.

 

“We put our heads together to figure out where we can find a place conducive to our internship where we could continue to grow and expand,” Steward said. “We’ve always focused on developing cyber talent because that was our mandate… but we also had our sights on growing into other specialties. This year, [the Pathfinder Internship curriculum] expanded into software testing and evaluation in addition to cyber.”

 

The interns’ lessons during the program led to a culminating exercise where they applied their knowledge and skills in a capstone challenge. Steward explained that as the world continues to depend on technology, there will be a continuing demand to fill cyber-related job vacancies in government and private sectors.

 

“Our program gives students a peek inside of what cyber work is like in the government,” Steward said. “It’s exciting work and you can make a good living doing it – and the main focus of the program is exposure. You don’t know what you don’t know, and our program provides that exposure, mentorship, and showing what different, interesting things interns can do in six weeks.”

 

Steward specified that interns on the program “are government contractors, essentially,” and Department of Defense (DOD) employees. Interns who complete the program overcome hurdles to future DOD employment, such as acquiring a secret security clearance (at minimum). Students working on cyber projects with the DOD also receive a week-long course of “Security+” instruction. According to Steward, the exposure to cyber work and the credentials provided by the Pathfinder Internship program also better position graduates for success with civilian employers because they have resume bullets that other job applicants lack.

 

UCF began its affiliation with Pathfinder during the 2021-2022 academic year, but 2024 marks the first time this internship and its graduation ceremony have taken place at UCF.  The decision to relocate the internship experience to Central Florida echoed similar concerns of private firms who find they must offer competitive compensation packages and comfortable work arrangements when recruiting young, sought-after talent.

 

“If I only have so much money, where can I go to continue expanding my program but also have attractive amenities?” Steward said. “We provided proposals to different schools that we felt met the criteria, and UCF came out on top. We’ve always had a good relationship with UCF, and UCF has always had good interns [in the cyber community]. So, why not have it in Orlando?”

 

For all the benefits the Pathfinder program provides to budding cyber professionals, Steward emphasized that through building up the cyber workforce, Pathfinder’s internship improves DOD readiness.

 

“Multiple government organizations have hired individuals who were interns in Pathfinder,” Steward said. “Our program is set up so that when students graduate, they can hit the ground running in whatever organization they join. They already have the security clearance and the exposure, so they can quickly acclimate to whatever mission they’re supporting.”

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