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When the nation's ultimate collector and protector of classified information is impressed by a university's cybersecurity curriculum, it's no secret.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have designated Brigham Young University as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, a distinction reserved for schools that excel in teaching how to protect networks and computer systems.

BYU's Information Technology program "prepares students to be cybersecurity experts" in the public and private sectors, said Joseph Ekstrom, chair of the school's IT program.

BYU is one of seven schools nationwide that recently received the designation, which stands until 2017, when the school can re-apply. BYU is the first school in Utah to earn the distinction.

According to an NSA press release, graduates of the designated schools often become guardians of national security information systems and commercial networks, "meeting the increasingly urgent needs of the U.S. government, industry, and academia."

That's certainly true of BYU grads, said Ekstrom.

"We have graduates from two to four years ago on the lead security teams inside Boeing and Lockheed Martin," he said.

Until last year, the program had a 100 percent student placement rate for five years straight, according to Dale Rowe, who joined the faculty of BYU's College of Engineering and Technology in 2010 after more than 17 years as a systems administrator and developer of cybersecurity infrastructure.

BYU grads, he said, often go on to work for such companies as Microsoft, ExxonMobil, Adobe and the Department of Defense, among others. With the new designation, the program's approximately 170 students — 60 to 70 percent of whom have a cybersecurity emphasis — will stand out as strong candidates for the NSA and other government work. An NSA liaison will direct students to funding opportunities and job placement, he said.

And they may not have to go far: NSA is building a new data center in Bluffdale, although the agency has been tight-lipped about hiring for the facility.

And there's more good news: BYU and its IT students are now eligible for special grants and scholarships from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.

To receive the National Center for Academic Excellence designation, BYU underwent a rigorous evaluation of its curriculum, faculty and master theses — every aspect of the program. And, the IT program had to demonstrate that the campus is serious about cybersecurity.

"We had to show that security was being used appropriately across the campus, from nursing to law and management," Rowe said in a news release. "After going through the certification process, it became clear that we definitely have excellent security coverage throughout all of our programs."

One key to the curriculum's success is that security concepts are covered in multiple core classes, not just one or two specialty courses. Ekstrom began incorporating security into the curriculum in 2004.

More instruction on security is important, said Whitney Maxwell, of Iowa, who graduated from the program in April.

"When it comes to IT, there's no area you can pursue without recognizing the security aspect of it," she said. For example, "it's foolish to teach coding without teaching the security implications of it."

After completing her second cybersecurity internship, she will join Microsoft in August as a software developer and tester, poring over code to find vulnerabilities.

She said she owes a lot to BYU's robust curriculum and is pleased to hear of the school's recent distinction.

"I'm really excited that the BYU IT program is starting to get recognized," she said. "It is a phenomenal program."


O For more information about BYU's Information Technology program, visit