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This South Dakota university is cybersecurity’s next powerhouse

February 27, 2023 | Alcino Donadel

This article by Alcino Donadel was published in UniversityBusiness.com on Feb. 16, 2023.

There are almost as many job openings for cybersecurity across the country right now as there are people in the state of South Dakota. But thanks to an NSA partnership and a diverse stream of donations and state funding, Dakota State University (DSU) is poising itself to become the new hub for cybersecurity education, research, and career preparation.

DSU has had a particular focus on cybersecurity for the past 20 years. The National Security Agency (NSA) recognized the school as a Cyber Education Center of Excellence in 2012 and has a longstanding relationship with the school sending its employees there for specialized learning opportunities. The Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences houses 53% of its enrolled students, which contributes to the school’s 99% job placement rate. DSU’s homepage features profiles of four undergraduate students, all of them either having graduated with or pursuing a Bachelor’s in cyber operations.

“We’re in that flyover country, and we believe that we can produce a real pipeline of qualified personnel to start filling those job openings,” says DSU President José-Marie Griffiths.

The school is now aiming to expand its campus facilities and research labs and double its number of Beacom College graduates with a $90 million boost in funding. Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford is contributing $50 million to establish a research facility in Sioux Falls that can house more students and faculty, thus expanding its research and partnerships with public and private contractors. State and local funding will assist with startup facility operations and student recruiting.

President Griffiths believes that DSU’s X-factor is its ability to is to bridge what students and faculty are doing in school to real-world problems people in cybersecurity careers face every day.

“One thing that I hear employers say in meetings, particularly in Washington, is, ‘The people aren’t really well qualified when they come out of cyber programs.’ Why is that?” Griffiths says. “A lot of students in cybersecurity programs are not getting practical experience whatsoever.”

A recent educational partnership agreement with the NSA permits students to earn school credit by working with the NSA on classified projects, and faculty members can formally take research sabbaticals with the NSA. Additionally, NSA employees can come to DSU to work with faculty and students, their insight keeping students in the loop on the latest trends of national security defense.

“We’ve always said that the way the government can develop a better opportunity for hiring graduates from the university is to get to know the faculty, and if you get to know the faculty, then they will bring their students along and expose their students to what’s happening,” Griffiths says. “We have a lot of opportunities here with this agreement and we’re very, very excited about it.”

Aside from federal agencies and defense contractors, the school’s Madison Cyber Labs (dubbed MadLabs) also partners with public and private firms at the state and local level, giving students and faculty “breadth and depth” to the many paths a career in cybersecurity can take them. Students and faculty collaborate with these outside entities on real problems, and their solutions have actual implications for the firm’s success.

Work like this streamlines a student’s vision with a definitive career and can help establish South Dakota as the next “cyber state.”

“It’s a very hands-on, interactive advocation of cyber security,” Griffiths said. “That’s part of our culture here.”