A sign indicates the joint educational initiative for A&M-SA students with Facebook beginning this fall semester.
A sign indicates the joint educational initiative for A&M-San Antonio students with Facebook beginning this fall semester. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Facebook could be culling cybersecurity students from Texas A&M University-San Antonio now that it is planting its flag at the fledgling higher education institution as its first cybersecurity-certified university in the state.

Officials from the tech giant unveiled plans to sponsor a three-credit-hour program at the university starting this fall semester. High-performing students will go on to intern at Facebook and be eligible for scholarships to attend such conferences as the Black Hat Briefings and DEFCON, two of the top cybersecurity conferences in the world.

David Velez is an A&M-San Antonio junior studying computer science whose circuitous route to the university took him from selling computers at Best Buy to working at the help desk for AT&T and USAA to eventually leading workshops that strive to make computer science theory more tangible.

Velez considered attending the University of Texas at San Antonio, which features one of the most reputable cybersecurity programs in the country, before betting on the potential of A&M-San Antonio’s academic programs in computer science.

“I have this opportunity in my hands, and I want to do something with it,” Velez said, adding that cybersecurity and national defense are two of his biggest passions. “One of the driving factors for me is I really want to be able to serve this nation in some way.”

A&M-San Antonio is one of nine Facebook-sponsored institutions availed to the company’s hands-on training in combating cyberattacks. Students who go through the program receive a guarantee Facebook will look at their résumé, said Akhtar Lodgher, who chairs the university’s department of computing and cybersecurity.

“This exciting new program will allow our students to attend Facebook-sponsored security training, conferences, and interaction with Facebook employees,” Lodgher said.

The program also entails mentorship opportunities, project development, and cyberattack simulations that help students train for the real thing.

Designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, the university’s student population is 72 percent Latino, and more than three-fourths of those enrolled are first-generation college students.

More than half of Facebook’s cybersecurity team is made up of women, said Stephanie Siteman, information security programs and operations manager at Facebook, and the company is working toward reflecting in its staff the diversity of its customers.

“We’re really looking for diverse talent – so anyone who normally wouldn’t pursue cybersecurity – and obviously it’s an extra bonus if they’re an underrepresented group,” Siteman said. “Right now the amount of students who are pursuing cybersecurity versus computer science is very small.”

The university’s roughly 300 computer science and cybersecurity students – along with other STEM departments – are studying in a brand-new, 140,000-square-foot Science and Technology Building this fall. A&M–San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson said Facebook’s decision to partner with the university is a testament to the rigor and academic quality of its computer science and cybersecurity programs.

“This is truly a first-in-Texas program, and it’s the kind of innovative course that A&M-San Antonio is committed to developing in collaboration with industry leaders such as Facebook,” Teniente-Matson said.

A&M-San Antonio is entering its third year as a four-year institution, and Velez will be among the first cohort to have gone from freshmen to graduate at the South San Antonio campus. He said he’s taken a long journey from being a virtually computer-illiterate computer salesman as a 20-year-old to a now-33-year-old computer science student, and he hopes Facebook’s arrival at his school will draw others like him to the institution.

“It’s definitely going to grab a lot of people’s attention here in San Antonio, and that’s great for us,” Velez said. “We’re already a big centralized city for cybersecurity. Getting into this partnership is only going to push that concept forward.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.