Originally published April 23, 2018
By Pablo Villa
Not all college graduates have professional plans laid out before receiving their diplomas. But a pair of software engineering students at The University of Texas at El Paso knows exactly what lies ahead for them after Commencement.
Pedro Estrada Jr. and Aldo Rafael Perez are the first students from The University of Texas at El Paso who will graduate through the Scholarship For Service (SFS) program. They each will receive their Master of Science in software engineering in May 2018. The SFS program is part of a National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security initiative intended to build the capacity of cybersecurity workforce professionals in order to enhance the nation’s security and economic competitiveness. After graduation, Estrada and Perez will work in government cybersecurity positions for a time period equal to the number of years funded by the program.
Pedro Estrada Jr., left, and Aldo Rafael Perez are the first students from The University of Texas at El Paso who will graduate through the Scholarship For Service (SFS) program. They each will receive their Master of Science in software engineering in May 2018. The SFS program is part of a National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security initiative intended to build the capacity of cybersecurity workforce professionals in order to enhance the nation’s security and economic competitiveness. After graduation, Estrada and Perez will work in government cybersecurity positions for a time period equal to the number of years funded by the program.
Pedro Estrada Jr. and Aldo Rafael Perez will enter employment with prominent government agencies in fulfillment of the Scholarship For Service (SFS) program. The awards are part of a National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative intended to build the capacity of cybersecurity workforce professionals in order to enhance the nation’s security and economic competitiveness.
Estrada and Perez comprise the first cohort of fast-track students who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science in May 2017. Next month, they each will receive their Master of Science in software engineering.
“When selecting the first cohort of SFS Scholars, the committee was mindful that we needed to select students who will represent UTEP well, set the tone for the SFS program, and provide good role models for future scholars,” said Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., associate professor in UTEP’s Department of Computer Science. “Aldo Perez and Pedro Estrada have been exemplary students in every sense. Both are extremely intelligent, hard-working, ambitious, have significant interest in cybersecurity, and possess a real sense of duty and commitment to service. The program committee has been extremely satisfied with the professional development of both Aldo and Pedro, and we are confident that they will represent our SFS program and UTEP very well.”
The impetus for the pair’s journey as SFS Scholars began in January 2016 when a team of UTEP computer science faculty was awarded a highly competitive $3.9 million SFS grant. This prestigious award was created in 2000 by the NSF and DHS, which designated UTEP as one of about 70 CyberCorps institutions nationwide. As SFS Scholars, Estrada and Perez received full tuition, $3,000 for health insurance, $2,000 for books and school supplies, $4,000 for travel and professional development, and an annual stipend ($34,000 as graduate students and $22,500 as undergraduates). In return, they commit to serving in a government cybersecurity position for a time period equal to the number of years funded by the program.
After graduation, Estrada will relocate to the northeastern United States to work with the Department of Defense, while Perez will work as an analyst at Johns Hopkins University. While the last two years have involved similar circumstances for the pair, the manner in which they reached this point has been disparate.
Perez served six years in the U.S. Air Force with assignments at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. He reached the rank of staff sergeant before leaving the service and returning to his hometown of El Paso to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Perez said he became interested in the discipline while working in his military occupational specialty — aircraft hydraulic maintenance. As a noncommissioned officer, Perez said he enjoyed building databases to create efficiencies in the work his subordinates would perform.
“I found it really interesting to create things instead of maintain them,” Perez said. “I really liked that.”
What Perez also liked is the steady paycheck provided by government work. That notion is what drew him to the SFS program, he said. With his time as a student coming to a close, he is looking forward to resuming service to the needs of the country for which he has previously fought.
“When you get into cybersecurity, you’re able to create things that have an impact worldwide,” Perez said. “To have the opportunity to work in a field that has an impact in securing people, securing their information, furthering what we know and enhancing the safety of computer users, it’s a privilege to engage in that work. It’s also a service to our country.”
For Estrada, attaining a bachelor’s, let alone a master’s degree, wasn’t always a goal.
The El Paso native dropped out of Eastwood High School and subsequently earned a GED. He was drawn to the IT field after his disappointment with paying $180 for repair on his personal computer netted subpar results. Estrada attained a few certifications and found steady work with MSD Ignitions in El Paso. After eight years, he came to a realization.
“I wanted more,” Estrada said. “But, in order to move forward — not only with my career but with my life — I needed to make a drastic change that involved significant education.”
Estrada began full-time coursework at El Paso Community College. When he completed two years there, he sought out an adviser about transferring to UTEP but was unsure what degree path to follow. The adviser perused his resume and suggested computer science, to which Estrada obliged. But upon arriving on campus, Estrada realized he had no idea what he had got himself into.
“The first day, the professor told us to log in to our computers and said, ‘OK, let’s start programming,’” Estrada said. “I raised my hand and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, I didn’t sign up for programming. I thought we were going to fix stuff.’”
But despite his early struggles, Estrada persevered. He said he spent a lot of time away from class reading and learning about computing software principles and design patterns. Eventually, he not only grasped the concepts he was learning, he flourished in them, which led to his selection as an SFS Scholar.
Now, Estrada looks forward to helping the Department of Defense in its efforts to keep the country secure.
“I’ve never been a hand-me-a-gun, go-to-the-front-lines kind of guy,” Estrada said. “But, through federal employment I get to give back. It will not only be to my community but to my country, because I’m providing a service that is desperately needed.”
Estrada also hopes his journey can be looked upon as a motivation for others who have experienced academic struggles in their lives.
“I used to be ashamed of the fact (that he had dropped out of high school),” Estrada said. “I feel like I’ve carried that scarlet letter forever. But don’t allow the past to dictate what kinds of decisions and career choices you make. Don’t let your shortcomings be the thing that holds you back.”
That advice is something both initial UTEP SFS Scholars hope the cohorts that follow them will abide by.
The UTEP SFS Scholars award, which extends through December 2020, is scheduled to support more than 30 students with a focus in computer security and information assurance. In addition to the financial benefits of the SFS program, UTEP SFS students receive training to enhance their technical cybersecurity competencies beyond the classroom as well as improve professional skills through technical and professional workshops.
The next cohort of six students is expected to graduate in May 2019.