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UNG triumphs over Georgia Tech in national cybersecurity challenge; opportunities open for students
Kevin Lin, a computer science student at the University of North Georgia, competes in the 2019 National Security Agency Codebreaker Challenge, which ran for 110 days.

The University of North Georgia claimed an irrefutable victory as the No. 1 cyber operations university team in the nation. 

A group of 184 UNG students spent 110 days competing in the 2019 National Security Codebreaker Challenge, which finished on Jan. 10. 

The university’s team accumulated 230,450 points, more than tripling Georgia Tech, who came in second place with 56,050 points. 

“Our students just worked harder than any other team,” Bryson Payne, coach of UNG’s cyber operations team, said. “It’s great to see two Georgia schools at the top.”

Flexing their computer science knowledge, each UNG competitor finished at least one of the challenge's seven tasks. 

Payne, director of UNG’s Center for Cyber Operations Education, said only 50 students out of the 531 universities and colleges that participated were able to complete all seven tasks. Thirty of those were UNG participants. 

Maria Marquez, a senior UNG student from Gainesville, claimed her own personal triumph by finishing the seven challenges. She tapped into her knowledge of database analysis, reverse engineering, cryptography and forensics to stop a fictitious terrorist attack. 

“What I enjoyed the most about it was being able to put what I’ve learned in the classroom to a real world scenario,” Marquez said. 

Payne said the competition forced his students to act like a junior to mid-level field analyst from the NSA. 

He said the challenge, which has been going on for seven years, gets “better and better each year.” In 2018, UNG students came in third place. 

“Being No. 3 in the country last year gave them enough confidence and awareness to strike the No. 1 spot,” Payne said. “They jumped to No. 1 in the first week of competition and maintained it for 15 weeks.”

Winning the challenge didn’t only bolster many students’ resumes, it also opened up a door of opportunities in cybersecurity. 

Marquez and the other students who completed all seven tasks, received a letter from the NSA. 

“It said, ‘Congrats. If you’re interested in employment opportunities, let us know,’” Marquez said. “Honestly, it’s a great feeling. I never thought I’d get such a high opportunity starting my bachelor’s degree.”

Marquez is one of 200 students majoring in cybersecurity at UNG. The major became an option in the fall of 2018. 

Payne said cybersecurity offers “a world of opportunities” for students. Some of the courses include ethical hacking, which teaches students how to protect a system from hackers; forensics, which entails analyzing a system that’s been broken into; and network security, which shows them how to run a network operation center.

Each semester, Marquez said she dabbles in another branch of cybersecurity, all of which have piqued her interest. 

After she earns her bachelor’s, she intends to pursue a master’s in cybersecurity. However, she’s still not set on a specific path in the field.

“Really, I’m not sure right now,” Marquez said. “I like cryptography and IT (information technology) security. What I’ve learned in college is to keep an open mind, and I’ll do that with my career options.”