As cybersecurity education has grown in California, a new generation of cyber heroes is emerging from the pathways, competitions, and coaching that happens every day across the state. Brandon Nguyen is undoubtedly part of that group and has already had an impact on his school and his community.

Nguyen recently graduated from Oxford Academy in Cypress. While he was in school, he completed 24 college credits through Cypress College, earned three certificates and obtained six industry certifications — all before officially graduating.

He was also an active member of the school’s cyber competitions team and now works as a mentor to younger students.

Nguyen said he did not enter high school intending to be so involved in cybersecurity, but things gradually built on one another as he became more involved.

“One of my friends did CyberPatriot and said I was pretty good and should join their team, which was the only team at the school,” Nguyen said. “Then a professor asked me to start taking college classes over the summer. I followed along the pathway and, over time, I just kept taking more classes.”

That professor, Ben Izadi of Cypress College, said Nguyen was one of the top students he’s had and someone who was not afraid of taking chances and pursuing new challenges.

“He has set goals and is committed and focused on achieving those goals. I found Brandon to be a responsible and dedicated student who goes above and beyond the ‘call of duty’ to complete tasks in a timely manner,” Izadi said. “He can process information intellectually by applying problem-solving knowledge to new situations.”

Izadi calls Nguyen the “symbol of success” for Cypress College’s PACE (Pathway to Advancement of Cybersecurity Education) program aimed at developing cybersecurity pathways from middle school to four-year college.

Izadi invited Nguyen to present at the WASTC Winter ICT Educators’ Conference earlier this year. He was also recognized at the CompTIA Partners Summit in Las Vegas over the summer for his success in completing professional certifications while in high school.

Not only does Nguyen have a grasp on the technical skills needed to be successful in cybersecurity, he’s also developed the interpersonal skills that are essential for a good cyber coach. Nguyen mentors high school students as part of the Sunburst Youth Academy National

Guard Youth Challenge Program, which connects at-risk high school students with cybersecurity education.

“Cybersecurity builds critical thinking skills. I’ve learned that it’s not just computers that can get compromised; sometimes the weakest thing is humans,” Nguyen said. “You need to know how to train people to make sure hackers don’t call them and force them to do things like give them their passwords. That mindset is important.”

It’s one thing to practice cybersecurity in the classroom or a competition setting, but it’s something else entirely to do it in a real-world setting — especially in another country.

Four California high school students had the opportunity to do just that this summer when they participated in the Future Cybersecurity Leaders Exchange, funded by the U.S. Embassy in London. A total of 20 students participated in the program, 10 from the U.S. and 10 from the UK.

Students saw sights like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, but they also shadowed cybersecurity professionals from the public and private sectors, which broadened their horizons about potential career paths.

“The experience impacted the way I view cybersecurity significantly,” said Sky Jung, a junior at Troy High School. “We were exposed to a diverse range of careers in the cybersecurity field that I wasn’t aware of prior to the exchange program.”

The program included a 14-day cybersecurity camp in the UK, followed by professional site visits in Washington, D.C. and southern California. Students participated in a cultural exchange aimed at creating global networks among future cybersecurity leaders.

“Almost everyone has been staying in contact since the program ended,” Jung said. “After spending pretty much every day together for almost a month, it was so hard to say goodbye to my exchange friends, but the fact that we’ve all still been able to stay in touch just shows that it’s possible to make lasting connections.”

The trip included a visit to Google’s headquarters in London, which stood out for Bowen Liu, a senior at North Hollywood High School.

“I remember the tour guide taking us out to the balcony with patio swings, wooden logs for chairs, and this amazing view of London facing the Thames River. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted this kind of workspace from a company,” Liu said.

Participants also had the opportunity to see how regulations differ between the U.S. and the UK and make connections with companies like Cisco and Northrop Grumman.

“From what I picked up, cybersecurity in the UK is much, much more regulated,” said Nathan Melwani, a senior at Fullerton High School.

Phoenix Dimagiba, a senior at Del Norte High School, noted a difference in how cyber apprenticeships are viewed in each country.

“It was fascinating to learn about the types of cybersecurity opportunities available in the UK,” he said. “It seems like their cybersecurity education and apprenticeships are much more developed than they are here in the U.S.”

Students also learned about the ever-increasing role that cybersecurity plays in geopolitical conflicts.

“Coming into the exchange, my entire perspective was blown open, especially when they revealed the amount of geopolitical tensions that involve cybersecurity” Liu said. “I realized that my thoughts on cybersecurity were constrained by where I live.”

As Melwani prepares for college, the exchange program crystalized that cybersecurity is the pathway he wants to follow.

“Cybersecurity went from being merely just a competition for me to a possible major or minor in college,” he said. I learned that the world of cybersecurity is very diverse, as there are so many intricate methods that someone could utilize to take control of a network.”

The program also helped Dimagiba solidify his view of cybersecurity as he prepares for college and the start of his career.

“The visits to U.S. and UK government agencies and corporations served as reminders that the end goal of cybersecurity is protecting others,” Dimagiba said. “Cybersecurity professionals can ensure national security, maintain the integrity of consumer data, or both.”

The Future Cybersecurity Leaders Exchange was facilitated In the U.S. by PH International and in the UK by the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and QA, ltd. For more information, visit https://www.ph-int.org/us/program/239/.