Fairfield University Cybersecurity Program Director Mirco Speretta gives students hand-on cyber experience in the school's security operations center.

Aug 25 2023

Universities Tap Student Talent to Support Security Operations

Student-staffed security operations centers provide on-the-job training and valuable technology skills.

At Connecticut’s Fairfield University, computer science students do more than read about cybersecurity in the classroom. They also help run the school’s security operations center (SOC).

“They extract data from the monitoring tools and format it in a concise way for the security team,” says Mirco Speretta, cybersecurity program director. “They create reports using our network monitoring software, and based on what they see, they can open a task for the security team to continue the investigation.”

In a time of staffing shortages, students in the SOC can help school IT departments do more in support of institutional cyber resilience. Students themselves benefit from the chance to demonstrate and sharpen their cyber skills, which are sure to be in high demand after graduation.

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Student-Run SOCs Put Students on the Front Lines of Cyberdefense

Fairfield University launched its hands-on program in fall 2022 and has already put four students to work in the SOC.

“We collaborated very closely with the security team in the IT Services department and with our CISO, Henry Foss,” Speretta says. “Together we opened all the software tools that the security team uses to our computer science students so that they can work on tasks that are usually carried out by cybersecurity professionals.”

Students use tools by TenableCrowdStrikeSplunk and others in support of cyber monitoring and remediation. With these capabilities, “the students have access to any kind of traffic that happens on the network” and can help identify areas of concern, he says.

At Missouri’s Maryville University, 10 to 12 students per semester work in the Cybersecurity Center of Excellence as part of their academic coursework, says assistant professor of cybersecurity and Interim Assistant Dean Brian Gant.

The center provides free cybersecurity services to area organizations and businesses.

“Once we enroll students in this course, they typically get assigned clients. It might be a neighboring school district, a nonprofit organization, or maybe a mom-and-pop business that does not have the budget to pay a third party for full-blown cybersecurity services,” Gant says.

The students typically provide high-level services such as “scanning of networks, looking at vulnerabilities and creating phishing campaigns,” Gant says. “These are things that are very effective for an organization, but you’re not necessarily providing the keys to the kingdom to a student.”

3.4 million

(ISC)², (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study, October 2022

Source: The current global shortfall of cybersecurity workers

At the University of Oklahoma, CISO Jeff Miller has a similar effort going. “In our SOC, student employees take on job duties that give them real-world exposure to cybersecurity roles,” he says.

The student employees use tools from CrowdStrike and Jamf to assist full-time staff with crucial log analysis, endpoint and firewall event inspection, and other duties.

Hands-On Experience Provides Career Readiness for Students

At a time when there’s a short supply and high demand for skilled cyber talent, hands-on programs can help prepare students for such roles.

Students “can mature their knowledge in those skills and actually have the experience of a junior-level SOC analyst,” Speretta says.

In the classroom, “we might talk about how a network works, and we give examples that are built by instructors. In the SOC, they actually see what that looks like,” he says.

HIGHER ED REIMAGINED: Watch how a student-run SOC protects this university’s assets.

At Maryville, students use tools by Nessus and Splunk, working with the same cutting-edge technology they’ll see in the workforce.

“They are developing a level of comfort with some of the industry-standard tools that are out there while they’re still in school,” Gant says.

Work in the SOC “also helps with the soft skills: understanding business communication needs, project timelines, how to relate technical conversations to a nontechnical audience. All of those things help them when they get that first job or internship,” he says.



At the University of Oklahoma, the chance to provide SOC support means graduates are “ready to enter the workforce, backed by a firsthand operational history that demonstrates the qualities and attributes that the industry demands,” Miller says.

These hands-on SOC opportunities also open doors to the IT profession.

“Not all high schools are promoting that as a career option, and working in the SOC can have the knock-on effect of bringing people in who were unaware of the field before,” says Kayne McGladrey, a senior member at IEEE.

Even if they don’t go on to take cyber jobs, “working in the SOC gives them exposure to some of the language and risks common in cybersecurity,” he says. “Then, if they’re working as developers, it’ll influence the direction by which they create things. They’ll at least have security in mind.”

Jeff Miller, CISO at University of Oklahoma
In our SOC, student employees take on job duties that give them real-world exposure to cybersecurity roles.”

Jeff Miller CISO, University of Oklahoma

SOCs Elevate a University’s Security Posture

Running a SOC is a 24/7 proposition, McGladrey notes. With IT talent already overstretched, the efforts of students in support of cybersecurity can deliver big benefits.

With students on watch, “Now we have more pairs of eyes looking at data, as well as helping with any backlog of tasks that cannot be completed” by the IT Services department, Speretta says. “These students can take on some of those tasks as well.”

At Maryville, the student effort “keeps cybersecurity in the forefront for the university,” Gant says. There’s a reputational benefit too: “By assisting the community, by providing some of these services, it gets Maryville’s name out there. It definitely puts us in a place where we can promote the university and promote our students.”

Photography by Joe Buglewicz

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