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U.Va. engineering students establish Women in Cybersecurity chapter

Dianna Damenova and Connie Zhang work to provide women with opportunities to thrive within STEM fields

<p>U.Va. engineering students establish Women in Cybersecurity chapter to empower women pursuing careers in STEM.</p>

U.Va. engineering students establish Women in Cybersecurity chapter to empower women pursuing careers in STEM.

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Second-year Engineering students Dianna Damenova and Connie Zhang established a chapter of Women in Cybersecurity at the University on Feb. 2. It was their shared desire to empower and connect students outside of the classroom that led them to create the group, which focuses on bringing together women interested in cybersecurity and giving them the confidence to pursue a career in a male-dominated field. 

The two friends both developed a passion for cybersecurity during high school through their involvement in the CyberPatriot program — a national competition with the goal of helping students pursue a career in cybersecurity — and summer internships within the field. Damenova, who is WiCyS vice president, helped establish an all-girls cybersecurity team at her high school while chapter president Zhang had similar experiences with her introduction to cybersecurity, falling in love with the mission behind the field as well as the national importance of cybersecurity as a whole. 

Their passion only continued to grow as they entered college. The two met each other during their first year and quickly noticed a lack of a community for women in cybersecurity at the University. 

Both Damenova and Zhang knew how much of a positive impact being surrounded by a welcoming community had on their drive to pursue a career in STEM. With their shared desire to provide women in cybersecurity with a community of their own, they reached out to Women in Cybersecurity — a national organization founded in 2012 through a National Science Foundation Grant with the purpose of encouraging women to pursue a career in cybersecurity. The two students established a chapter at the University to help build a welcoming space here.

“We wanted to bring together women and uplift them into getting interested in cybersecurity and also gaining the confidence to do so,” Zhang said. “There's a lot of things behind the scenes that we didn't necessarily know about going into [creating a CIO], but honestly what has kept us going forward is just the mission of bringing us together and creating a supportive community where people can learn, make mistakes and grow their interest in cybersecurity.”

With an organization open to students of all experience levels — from highly skilled to beginner level — Women in Cybersecurity provides a community where its members are able to share knowledge as well as develop connections with those who share similar interests.

“It's all about the community for us,” Damenova said. “It's so rewarding meeting all the incredible women in the industry at U.Va. in terms of students, professors and people in research.”

By hosting various social and professional events — such as cybersecurity competitions and inviting professionals to speak to their members — Zhang and Damenova hope to promote a space for their members to connect and share knowledge.

Even with their previous experience, the two students knew that they were in need of support from a faculty member for their organization to prosper, and they found this role model in Angela Orebaugh, an assistant professor in the Engineering School’s computer science department.

“I think Professor Orebaugh was kind of the first person to really encourage us to start this chapter,” Zhang said. “When we initially brought up the idea, she was very open and wanted to connect us to people in the industry or resources at the University, so she's really been helpful in guiding us to what the students may want, and bridging that perspective of industry and academia.”

Throughout her time working within the cybersecurity field, Orebaugh has experienced firsthand the lack of a community for women within STEM fields, as she was often the only woman on her cybersecurity team.

Men outnumber women in cybersecurity by three to one, and even changes within the last decade have seen women account for just 24 percent of the cybersecurity workforce and claim leadership positions at a higher rate, according to a study conducted by the (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce.

Orebaugh uses her position at the University to do her part to encourage this growth within the student body.

“Over the years I have had so many women, whether students or those already in the workforce, express their interest in cybersecurity to me, but also express their trepidations and concerns with entering the field,” Orebaugh said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “As we gain more women role models in the field, we can work together to help grow the number of women not only in the cybersecurity field but in STEM fields in general by creating cultures of diversity and inclusion.”

Orebaugh’s beliefs are shared by many at the University, with countless students and faculty serving as these role models by establishing various CIOs on Grounds — all which aim to provide women with networking opportunities and encouragement to follow their passions and leave their mark on a male-dominated field.

Women in STEM — one of the aforementioned organizations — was established at the University as a CIO in 2018 and is currently led by third-year College student Nicole Avidon. Avidon first joined Women in STEM during its founding year, developing a strong connection to the mission of the organization.

“Our overall mission is just to build a community of women who are interested in any of the STEM fields, so we don't limit ourselves to one particular area within STEM,” Avidon said. “We just want to build a community, both socially and professionally, that our members can lean on when they need it.”

Women in STEM hosts various social and professional events for their members to take part in — such as frequent game nights — as well as occasionally partnering with the U.Va. Career Center and local organizations to do resume workshops.

Avidon hopes to continue to further expand the organization’s reach by not only collaborating with the various other organizations for women in STEM on Grounds, but also potentially working with local universities to grow the community that they have established.

“One of the problems that we face is that cybersecurity is only gonna get bigger,” Damenova said. “So the more diverse perspectives, the more people involved.”