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How USC Aiken's CIO Used Regional Cybersecurity 'Buzz' to Launch a Student-Staffed Security Operations Center

Like many IT leaders working at institutions of higher education, University of South Carolina Aiken CIO Ernest Pringle has had to think outside the box to ensure enough staff to keep the university networks and IT infrastructure secure and well-monitored.

Workforce shortages in the cybersecurity field are not new; the Biden administration last summer launched a $500 million Good Jobs Challenge to boost workforce development and apprenticeship programs to train more Americans for cybersecurity careers. At the time, the Commerce Department said there were over 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. public sector, and that the total had risen 40% since the beginning of 2022.

Pringle had been working on a sort of apprenticeship program for USC Aiken since right before the pandemic, he told Campus Technology in a recent interview. Since then, his efforts and the university’s have benefitted from the synergy and buzz created by external organizations expanding their cybersecurity programs in the Aiken region, as well. 

Now, USC Aiken is enjoying a successful first year of its student-staffed Security Operations Center, expanding cyber-monitoring capabilities for not only the Aiken campus but also for sister campuses in the USC system, Pringle said. And the university is no longer short-staffed in the IT department, he added.

The student-employees of the SOC are seniors majoring in cybersecurity, and the Tier 1 analyst experience they’re getting as SOC staff not only better prepares them for finding jobs post-graduation, it also forms the basis for their senior capstone project — a requirement to earn the Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Computer Science – Cybersecurity, a relatively new degree offered under USC Aiken’s College of Sciences and Engineering.

“This started out as an initiative in the my division; we needed to expand our network security and monitoring capabilities anyway, and our dilemma was that we couldn’t staff it the way we needed to,” said Pringle, who also serves as Vice Chancellor for Information Technology. 

“The students working in the SOC have really had been a godsend for us; they work under the direction of a full-time IT staff member, Chris Clark, and he directs their work so that if they get into any trouble, or have any questions, he serves as the professional voice,” Pringle explained. “But the students are the actual eyes and ears watching the network and letting us know — which is where we would have been struggling to fill those full-time roles to do that work.”

When the SOC was an obvious need but still a fledgling idea, in 2019, USC Aiken was in the process of expanding its cybersecurity program, which has since become the first and only four-year partner institution with SANS Technology Institute in the world. Through the agreement, the STI undergraduate certificate has been folded into USC Aiken’s four-year cybersecurity degree as an option for students, according to the university’s website.

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