Student Named National Cyber Scholar While Wrapping Up 3rd SNHU Degree
From childhood, computers fascinated Norma DePriest ’19, and she had an eye for their security risks, too. While using an early home computer, a Commodore 64 (C64), she and her friends discovered they could access an organization's internal information through bulletin board systems (BBS). “Somehow, we would end up in a business system from the BBS and were able to access documents we probably were not supposed to be able to see,” she said.
As a high school student, she attended an applications training at a community college that didn’t challenge her enough — so she found a “back door” into the software. That prompted the community college to ask her to teach a night course for adults. She was just 17 years old.
You might think the rest is history, given her aptitude and skills, but life took her on a different journey; one that still got her where she was meant to go. DePriest explored an interest in music and video production. Then she became a mom and settled into an information technology career, accepting mainly project-based jobs that allowed her to be there for her five children.
Time passed, but her love of computers was constant — and so was her desire for more in this field.
It wasn't until DePriest experienced a period of homelessness and other personal obstacles that she realized it was time to return to school and focus on her future. The resolution came with its challenges, but she wanted to set an example for her ever-growing family — particularly for the granddaughter she was raising.
"I looked around me and thought this couldn’t be the example that I wanted to set for her," she said. "This was not the example that I wanted to set for any of my grandchildren, and if my children and grandchildren saw me persevere and pursue what I wanted, then they may follow in my footsteps."
Finding A Cyber Community
When it came to finding the right school, DePriest searched for one that offered team-based and competitive experiential learning opportunities for students interested in cyber security. She came across an article about a group of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) women who competed in the school's National Cyber League (NCL) and decided to apply.
About a month before DePriest started her first class at SNHU, she heard from Terry Winn, the coach of the CyberSNHUpers NCL team. Despite her battle with imposter syndrome and a fear of failure, she joined — and it quickly became central to her journey.
Joining the CyberSNHUpers introduced DePriest to classmates as invested in cyber security as she was. Together, they participated in team and competitive challenges that tested their working knowledge and skills and built close friendships.
“We became family, not just classmates or cyber league participants,” DePriest said. “We help each other, learn from each other, encourage each other and ensure anyone that comes our way has the same support that we had and those before us had so that the torch is passed along and the tradition we’ve created with each other continues far into the future."
DePriest met some of her cyber friends in person for the first time at the 2019 Women in CyberSecurity Conference (WiCyS), where they had the opportunity to learn from professionals in their field. The experience re-affirmed her love of cyber security and desire to help others in the field, too.
“I finally found my people,” she said. “They understood me — welcomed me. I was instantly comfortable, and the knowledge gained from the conference helped shape my direction.”
That year, she also earned her associate degree in IT, followed by a bachelor’s degree in general studies three months later. But she didn't stop there. She still had her master’s degree to earn.
Supported Along the Way
As DePriest progressed through her degree programs, accepting every cyber security opportunity available, she had two very important people in her corner: her mom and her mentor.
DePriest said her mom set an example of good leadership, ethics and morals — and that she was very invested in her daughter’s education. When Norma transferred to SNHU, her mom was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, inoperable. But that didn’t stop her from supporting her daughter throughout her SNHU journey. She asked DePriest for grade updates, met her friends and tuned into the live shows her daughter coordinated and hosted for Cyber Skyline, the organization that powers NCL.
“She fought a very hard fight with everything she could and got to see me obtain two degrees and most of this final degree,” DePriest said. “After getting this far, I promised her that I would not only finish, but I would be successful, never give up on my goals and be the person she knew I could be.”
DePriest's mom lost her battle earlier this year, but not before helping her daughter realize she had another mentor in her life.
CyberSNHUper Coach Winn is someone who has been there for DePriest throughout her time at SNHU, supporting her through personal and professional hurdles. “Any professional questions that I’ve had, he’s always answered with the best advice that could be given for the situation,” DePriest said. “... For me, he is one of the keys to my success in my degree programs and my professional life and has become a valued friend and mentor.”
'Giving Back' as a Mentor
Three years ago, DePriest advanced from an NCL player to a mentor — first as an ambassador and now as a league committee member. “I absolutely love being in a mentor-type role,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m helping people find their way along the cyber path,” she said.
In her position, she supports players and answers their questions. “I thoroughly enjoy seeing people get excited about learning and the happiness they emit when they’ve understood a security concept and can use it in a real-life situation,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to flourish in the supportive NCL community, and now, making a difference feels meaningful to DePriest.
“Norma was the cornerstone of the core group of participants and is/was always willing to mentor (and) motivate new participants as they came into their competition window,” Winn said. "... As I look at what the NCL participants do from season to season, it warms my heart to know Norma has had a hand in the outcome,” Winn said. This past year, SNHU ranked in the top 10 nationally in the competition.
Now, as a grandmother of 20, DePriest is weeks away from finishing her master’s in cyber security from SNHU as a Scholar with Honors. DePriest was one of 1,152 students across the country to receive the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation’s 2022 Scholar Award, and she successfully earned her GIAC Foundational Cybersecurity Technologies (GFACT) certification this fall.
As she continues to mentor NCL players and completes her college capstone course, she’s simultaneously preparing for the additional industry-recognized certifications and training she unlocked with the cyber scholarship. She's doing this all while working full-time in cloud technology and teaching at a local college.
“It’s never too late,” DePriest said. “You are the only one in charge of your destiny, and it is up to you to reach for it. When you do reach for it, choose something that truly makes you happy because life is too short to not be happy in your career choice.”
As an adjunct and CyberSNHUper alumna, she’ll take all she learned throughout her college experience to support new students as they advance their education — just as she's had people champion her. “I set out on a goal to show the world that pursuing your dreams was important and achievable no matter your age, gender or economic status,” DePriest said.
After seeing her mom go to SNHU, DePriest's daughter is now enrolled in a bachelor's program. "She will watch me graduate with my master’s in November, and I will encourage and support her on her journey and watch her in four years walk the same stage," DePriest said.
A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online program that can best help you meet your goals.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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About Southern New Hampshire University
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