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Cyber operators host cyber certification training courses for SA youth

Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 33rd Network Warfare Squadron  incident response operator, and GhostWire Academy course developer and co-founder, hosts a Network+ class in San Antonio, Oct. 21, 2018. The academy is a free cyber certification training and award organization which serves San Antonio teenagers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. R.J. Biermann)

Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 33rd Network Warfare Squadron incident response operator, and GhostWire Academy course developer and co-founder, hosts a Network+ class in San Antonio, Oct. 21, 2018. The academy is a free cyber certification training and award organization which serves San Antonio teenagers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. R.J. Biermann)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- In mid-2016, four Air Forces Cyber operators teamed to create a free cyber certification academy for San Antonio teenagers.

Master Sgt. Shaun Herron and Staff Sgts. Charles Hackett, Justin Gonzalez and Austin Ellsworth’s dream became reality when their non-profit, GhostWire Academy, was born. Today, their team of seven hosts dozens of 13- to 17-year-olds every weekend for eight- to 16-week-long preparatory courses.

“We wanted to teach teens how to become cyber-robust, -aware and -sharpened young adults for San Antonio,” said Herron, 624th Operations Center strategy and plans chief, and GWA president and co-founder. “That way the kids who come out of our academy have a fundamental understanding of computer systems and an in-depth understanding of computer networking and cybersecurity.”

With a combined 48 years’ experience and 18 cyber certifications, the founding team considers it a responsibility to lend their extensive cyber expertise to prepare tomorrow’s youth for the ever-evolving cyber landscape.

“Just look at our adversary’s capabilities and how cybercrime is evolving,” said Hackett, 33rd Network Warfare Squadron Standards and Evaluations noncommissioned officer in charge, and GWA vice president and co-founder. “If you look at the statistic for how cyber savvy our country’s youth are compared to other nation’s teens, we need to be more effective to be a super cyber power. Programs like ours are a way to reach and teach these kids.”

However, the road to reach their goal wasn’t an easy one.

In summer 2016 the team began preparing coursework, lesson plans, visuals and other content to host their first two courses, one on computer networks and the other on cybersecurity. A San Antonio library agreed to provide the needed classroom space. After advertising for the course, twenty teenagers quickly signed up and volunteer Airmen instructors were on-board to teach throughout the weeks. Everything seemed to line up, but then the team suffered their first defeat.

“Only two kids showed up,” Herron said. “It was one of the deepest, darkest moments for me because I thought I was going to quit. That’s when we realized we had to have a product for our program.”

The team agreed to expand their focus from simply preparing kids for certification testing to preparing and paying for their certification. They also searched for a new venue to host the classes.

“We reinvented ourselves,” Herron said. “We had a meeting and I said, ‘We have to do something.’ I said, ‘Let’s get these kids certified. Let’s figure it out,’ and that’s what we did. It’s one thing to talk about doing things and to have a well-thought-out plan, but when the rubber meets the road, you start realizing all the things you didn’t prepare for.”

Hoping to rebound, and after rebranding their academy, the team began preparations for their next cybersecurity course. With sign-ups underway, defeat reared its ugly head once again.

“We lost our venue,” said Herron. “And because kids had signed up, we had to send them cancelation notices. That really set us back. We were all demoralized from it.”

Through an interested benefactor, the team was introduced to Confluence Park, a venue for educators.

“We met up with Confluence Park, and they told us we would always have a home on their campus,” said Herron. “It was like when you’re dying from dehydration and someone gives you water. It was so reinvigorating. Here we were—lost, confused and frustrated—and now we have a place to teach, with air conditioning and dedicated computers for the kids to use.”

An organization also offered to pay for ten certifications.

With the venue set, students signed up, and certifications pre-paid, the team launched their first Information Technology Fundamentals certification preparatory course.

After a long, grueling journey, on Oct. 7 the team reached a major program milestone. Twelve of their students received their IT Fundamentals certification.

But the journey isn’t over for these graduates.

“These kids must keep rehearsing their skills to keep an active certification,” said Herron. “That’s why we implemented a pay-it-forward model to allow them an opportunity to instruct (within GWA) which will keep their certification active by being awarded continuing education credits after high school.”

Today the academy’s waitlist is 300 teens long. After the new year, they’ll begin hosting IT fundamentals, Network+ and Security+ prep courses.

“There is so much opportunity here,” said Gonzalez, 33rd NWS incident response operator, and GWA course developer and co-founder. “San Antonio, ‘Cyber City USA,’ is growing so fast, and there’s such a need for educated cyber operators. We’re happy to be involved in shaping and educating these young adults.”

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