This image shows a San Diego City College student who is working with Naval Information Warfare Systems

Yesenia Ponce couldn’t believe her good fortune. Even before the San Diego City College student last May earned her Associate Degree for Transfer in pre-engineering and mathematics, Ponce was recruited to work with one of the leading agencies tasked with designing and developing naval communications and information systems. San Diego-based Naval Information Warfare Systems Command will help pay her tuition when she transfers to the University of San Diego and will have a job ready for her when she earns her bachelor’s degree.

The 24-year-old inner-city resident was one of 16 city college STEM students selected for an initial cohort taking part in the groundbreaking new partnership between Naval Information Warfare Systems Command and the San Diego Community College District. Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, formerly known as SPAWAR, is looking at expanding its partnership to include Southwestern College in Chula Vista and Grossmont College in El Cajon. Meanwhile, it continues to offer a summer internship program for a handful of Southwestern College students who work at the research and development arm of Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, a division of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command.

“This is huge,” Ponce said. “When you go to school, you don’t necessarily get any work experience. So to get this kind of an opportunity to work in a field you’d like to go into, and get a taste of what it’s like, is amazing. And then there’s a job waiting for you when you graduate with your bachelor’s degree? That’s just unbelievable.”

The partnership underscores how California’s community colleges, in working with business and industry, are having a profound impact in providing pathways for upward social mobility.

“When I heard about this program, I’m thinking they probably only want to target superstars, why are they looking at us community college students?” said Maldonado, 22, who was raised by a single mom. “It seemed too good to be true. The hardest part for any student is finding a job once you’re out of school. I already have one waiting for me when I graduate.”

The partnership evolved after the San Diego Cyber Center of Excellence, California Cyberhub, the California Department of Industrial Relations — Division of Apprenticeship Standards, and Able-Disabled Advocacy hosted a series of meetings with employers, educators and others to address industry needs. A 2018 roundtable discussion included representatives from several community colleges from around the county. 

They created a template that was a STEM student’s dream: tuition assistance, part-time work during the academic year and full-time employment during the summer, all culminating with full employment upon earning a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree.

Naval Information Warfare Systems and San Diego City College organized a recruitment fair at the downtown campus to identify participants for the initial cohort. On April 17, more than 30 city college students were granted interviews. The 16 who were recruited are undergoing security clearances, working with human resources specialists and being assigned to specific projects.

“We have never done anything like this in the past,” said Angela Hanson, NIWIC Pacific’s director of human resources. “We have never done a recruiting event at a community college before.”

Once a student becomes a Naval Information Warfare Systems employee, he or she is eligible for benefits that include a subsidized education. Meanwhile, students will be hired for positions paying up to $43,000 annually (working full-time) while they go to school. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree can earn an initial annual salary of more than $73,000 with the potential of boosting that to more than $125,000 per year.

“Imagine being a community college student and almost overnight knowing your path, knowing what your future will be, knowing what you’re going to do and where you’re going to work, and you haven’t even graduated yet,” said professor Rafael Alvarez, who heads San Diego City College’s Math, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program.

For Naval Information Warfare Systems, the need is profound. At the core of its work is cybersecurity, an area that is seeing a critical shortage of qualified professionals. According to a 2018 Information Systems Audit and Control Association State of Cybersecurity report, more than one in four respondents surveyed said it takes at least six months to fill a new cyber security position, and the industry is facing a shortage of nearly 3 million cyber security professionals worldwide.

Mimi Rosado, division head, Total Force Management at Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, said the partnership addresses the large number of STEM students who decide to change their majors before graduating.

“If we can connect students with the engineers who are making a difference through their work, they can see the impact they can have and will perhaps be persuaded to stay in the STEM field. Every person who decides to follow through on a STEM path is one more person we can hire from in the future.”

Why isn’t Naval Information Warfare Systems instead targeting larger universities to build its workforce?

“The ever-growing cybersecurity talent demand requires a continuum of skill sets and experience from recent graduates to transitioning service members to seasoned Ph.D.s,” said Lisa Easterly, chief operating officer at the San Diego Cyber Center of Excellence. “Hands-on, certificate and two-year degree programs are critical for bridging the gap, and partnerships between academia and industry are key to ensuring the cyber workforce is prepared for the evolving cyber threat landscape.”

Ponce said she was skeptical of the program when Alvarez told her about it in the spring. She sent in a resume anyway and was asked to come in for an interview. “I said, ‘Whoa! I can’t believe this is happening.”

She’s taking several undergraduate courses at City College and Grossmont College this fall before transferring to University of San Diego, and she hopes to start working at the naval agency before the end of the year.

“This is an organization that is supporting you from day one and will be there for you along your journey and will be there with you when you finish,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing.”