EAST ORANGE, NJ — Hanging out in a computer lab for a week in the summer might not sound exciting to some, but for the 13 middle schoolers enrolled in the weeklong Air Force Association CyberCamp at the East Orange YMCA’s Capital One Computer Lab and Learning Center, it was an unforgettable experience to see computers and the ways they can be used from a completely new perspective.
The 13 participants — the majority of whom had never met one another before their participation in the program — came from East Orange, Orange, South Orange, Springfield and West Orange to take part in CyberCamp. CyberCamp is part of the AFA’s CyberPatriot, the national youth education program designed to inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity and other technical fields. The East Orange YMCA is one of 85 locations nationwide to offer the camp this summer.
The program was run by Alisa D. Vural, the CyberCamp director and chief financial officer of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, and Virginia Tech computer engineering major Aaron Morales of Morristown. The Morristown resident and Vural belong to a squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer organization that assists the U.S. Air Force through three missions: emergency services, disaster relief and aerospace education.
The camp was one of only two in New Jersey, and the only one in the country that was not run in partnership with an educational institution.
“My daughter and I are volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol, and Aaron Morales was our cadet commander, and he was trying to start a CyberPatriot team,” Vural, a West Orange resident, said in a recent phone interview. “He had asked me to coach it but we couldn’t get enough commitment for it among the team. In June, when he came back from college, I put together a proposal for a camp through the Y, and I pitched the idea of running a CyberCamp to my boss with two objectives: to engage middle schoolers and give them exposure to cybersecurity and possibly continue with CyberPatriot during the year, and for kids of diverse backgrounds to be exposed to cybersecurity and the career options that are available in the field.”
In order to find program participants, Vural said the Y sent emails to 1,100 people between the ages of 10 and 14 who are in the Y system, and from that they got seven of the 13 campers. The remaining campers were friends of people who registered or saw information about the camp on a town Facebook page.
“Every single one of these kids is used to putting their mind to something and conquering it. We talked to them about the fact that they were learning about a process of doing something and not actually how to do it,” Vural said. “It’s like learning an entirely new language in one week. We wanted them to know that you can have fun and learn some very cool skills while you’re at it. Now when they hear Donald Trump say things about Russian hackers that should get into Hillary Clinton’s email, they will know what that means.”
In addition to the practical skills that the group learned, Vural also said that the spirit of camaraderie among students was inspiring — especially as these children would likely never have met without the camp.
“When would a kid from East Orange and a kid from West Orange ever meet and get a chance to interact like this under circumstances? At this age, your social circle is pretty limited to your school and your town,” she said. “Here we had kids who are in private school and public school and from different towns are meeting for the first time and building genuine relationships with each other and developing teamwork skills.”
The program was an eye-opening experience for the participants, many of whom had only rudimentary knowledge beforehand about the complexities of cybersecurity.
“I signed up for the camp because I really like computer programming and getting inside a computer, and I’m always downloading stuff so my mom wanted me to know how to protect myself when using it,” 12-year-old West Orange resident Alexa Seaton, who will soon be entering the seventh grade, said in an interview. “Before I did this program, I thought that all you had to do was download a program and your computer was safe. I didn’t know how complicated it really is to do cybersecurity.”
Teddy, a South Orange resident, shared similar sentiments, saying he wanted to be more knowledgeable about how to stay safe while using technology.
“I just got a computer and I wanted to learn how to protect it properly,” the 12 year-old South Orange Middle School student said in a recent interview. “What I learned this week will make me be a lot more careful when I use the Internet in the future.”
West Orange residents Ilayda Vural and Julia Rodgers both came into the camp with a previous interest in cybersecurity, both as a possible career and as a skill set that is important in a world that relies heavily on technology. Both girls are entering the eighth grade at Roosevelt Middle School in the fall and are excited about what they have explored as a result of participating in CyberCamp.
“I have been interested in and doing programming for seven years, and with this camp I know I learned how much more has to be put into doing cybersecurity,” Ilayda said. “It’s pretty easy to hack into a computer, but it’s harder to protect it using just what’s already in the computer without importing outside programs. I love cybersecurity, and in the future it’s definitely going to be important to know how to protect yourself in cyberspace.”
Julia is passionate not only about the usefulness of cybersecurity knowledge in general, but the need to create more awareness about opportunities in the field for women.
“A lot of the jobs in cybersecurity are held by men and, as a girl, I think it’s important for me to go for something that other girls shy away from,” she said. “There are a lot of opportunities in the field of cybersecurity and this camp was a great start. Having a supportive environment, like I did from this camp, really helped me to see the possibilities and that I can have a real chance to do something like this one day.”