In an Insecure World, Valencia Student Finds a Cybersecurity Niche

When Kacie Paulk signed up for a few classes at Valencia College, she wasn’t planning on a long-term relationship with the college.

“I originally intended to take a couple of classes to earn some (IT) certifications and go on my merry way,” says Kacie.

But today, with several top-10 finishes in national cybersecurity competitions, Kacie has other plans. She’s aiming to finish her Associate in Science degree at Valencia, where she’s studying network engineering – and then earn her bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity from the University of Maine at Augusta, which is Valencia’s online partner for cybersecurity students.

Of course, if you’d told Kacie this five years ago, she would have laughed at you. But sometimes the road to your destination is crooked and not altogether clear from the start.

For Kacie, who grew up in Brevard County as the youngest of four kids, her college path had taken some twists and turns. She’d started at one of Florida’s big four-year universities, studying film production and social sciences. But along the way, she realized she would struggle to earn a living in those fields. So, she took some time off, stepped back and re-evaluated her options. Realistically, she thought, IT would be a good choice.

Her plan was simple: Earn some certifications that would make her more employable in the IT industry. She’d always liked computers – she’d been a video game fan and had also served as her family’s IT person. Besides, she’d already held a few IT jobs, starting with help desk work and moving into troubleshooting for individuals.

At Valencia, Kacie dabbled in a few IT classes on the East Campus, but as she began working toward earning a CCNA (Certified Cisco Network Associate), she quickly realized that she belonged in Valencia’s network engineering program on the West Campus.

“I was taking this class and I was shocked at the amount of feedback I got from the professor – who was Dr. (Wael) Yousif. He really wanted to make sure that we were learning, not just completing the assignments,” says Kacie. “He would take the time to Skype with us individually, answer our questions. I hadn’t expected that amount of feedback. And I was even more aghast when I realized he was the department chair.”

That’s when Kacie recognized the program was pretty special – and, armed with encouragement from her professors, she began to envision herself in the field. “Having that kind of support and encouragement made me realize that this was a career that I was well-suited for,” she says.

And what sets Valencia apart, she says, is the personal touch that the professors and instructors offer. “You can to go (instructors’) office hours and they’ll give you advice. There’s a lot of unofficial mentorship. If you ask for advice, they’ll give it.”

Indeed, Kacie’s father, who’s a circuit court judge, says that, of his four children who’ve gone to a wide variety of colleges and universities – including graduate school at Duke and Columbia universities– Kacie has received the most personalized education and attention.

“We were so excited that someone else was investing in her and cared about her in the way my wife and I had,” said Kacie’s dad, George Paulk. “My other kids went to college and they didn’t have that kind of experience” at other major Florida universities and colleges.

Kacie started out in the Cisco networking track and is now studying cybersecurity, with an eye toward earning three certifications: CCNA, Security Plus and Certified Ethical Hacker.

“Cybersecurity is so huge, I’m still figuring out where I belong,” she says. “I like (cybersecurity) a lot for the same reason I enjoy ‘capture the flag’ competitions. You’re just solving a puzzle – and I happen to like puzzles a lot.”

In her first competition, the National Cyber League spring series held in March 2018, Kacie was placed in the silver bracket – and finished ninth out of 853 contestants.

“After that, I thought, ‘Hey, I might be OK at this,’” she recalls.

Since then she has competed in the NCL team competition with fellow Valencia students – where they finished eighth out of 97 teams. Next, she competed in the U.S. Cyber Challenge – and scored high enough that the organizers invited her to a cybersecurity boot camp at Virginia Tech during the summer of 2018.

Kacie Paulk (right) competes with teammate Jaime Lightfoot at the 2018 Cyberlympics in Atlanta.

Together, with some friends, she recently competed in the Global Cyberlympics. After online qualifying, Kacie’s team finished as the second highest scoring team in North America –  earning the chance to compete in the World Finals in Atlanta in September.

And in October 2018, Kacie was among five students recognized by Valencia, the Aspen Institute and the Siemens Foundation as Siemens Technical Scholars. The students each received $5,000 scholarships – and, in return, are asked to help spread the word about education programs in STEM, such as Valencia’s network engineering program.

As current president of Valencia College’s cybersecurity club, Kacie is ready to give back to the college and community that has helped her so much.

“One of the things that has made a huge difference for me is being surrounded by people who are equally excited to learn about this field,” says Kacie. “That’s why the cybersecurity club has been a wonderful experience for me. And now that I’m president, I can help other students the way that the more experienced students and faculty members have helped me.”

2018 Siemens Technical Scholars award winners (left to right) Brianna Gonzales, Kacie Paulk, Juan Luna, Michael Downing, Michele Maiden, Amanda Cartagena, and Jugal Mehta at a ceremony held at the District Office on October 4, 2018 in Orlando, Fla.