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This summer, Howard Chen will wear a cap and gown for the first time in his life. The computer science major finished high school at age 16, and with a GED in his back pocket attended Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut for two years before transferring to UC Irvine during the 2017 winter quarter. Now, age 20, Chen will soon say goodbye to UCI, diploma in hand, but not without leaving his mark. Shortly after beginning his Anteater career, Chen founded the Cyber @ UCI club and the first UCI National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) team. Originally under the faculty guidance of Richert Wang, and now Ray Klefstad, Cyber and the CCDC team have continued to grow in size and popularity. Graduating this summer to begin exciting work at a Southern California tech company, Chen leaves behind an evolving student cybersecurity culture here at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and UCI.

Can you describe your UC experience versus the community college one?
Both experiences have been great, although completely different. Coming from a community college to a research institution was a culture shock. When I was at Mt. SAC, I had much smaller class sizes, but no larger focus on research. At UCI, I’ve been able to do a lot of independent and self-guided work with the help of professors to guide me. This has led to a lot of personal and professional growth.

You’ve talked about how security has this intimidating image, why do you think that is?
People don’t know enough about security, so it creates this barrier of misinformation. The truth is cybersecurity is a very accessible field. A lot of it is about having a “just try it and do it” attitude. A lot of the people I’ve worked with professionally don’t even have an ICS background, which is why security is such an accessible field. The truth is security is fun and a great community to be a part of; we just need to break down the intimidating wall surrounding it.

How is Cyber@UCI helping to tear down the wall, so to speak?
When I first started Cyber, I didn’t think it would get to where it is today. We’ve gone from a school with zero cybersecurity presence to a full CCDC team, competitions like CyberCTF, workshops and a promising new officer team. I’ve always wanted Cyber to be a place for people interested about tech to gather without feeling intimidated. I believe the current direction in which the club is moving in will achieve my goal of being an inclusive space for all. We really do want to be more welcoming to any major.

What advice would you give fellow students interested cybersecurity?
In order to succeed here you have to take steps to be proactive and get yourself out there. Get good at talking to people and learning from those experiences. Cybersecurity is a field where a lot of the learning has to be done on your own, at least for the time being. When it comes to security professionals, despite their varied backgrounds, one commonality is that they’re all great networkers. What separates a good engineer from a great engineer is his or her ability to make those interpersonal connections. Remember that there is always someone better than you and someone worse than you, so don’t let your view of yourself hold you back—take chances.

What was the best part of your UCI experience?
I like to define my experience by the interactions I’ve had with people, because those moments contribute more to my personal development than any OS or programming class ever will. People always have the capacity to surprise you when you take the time to get to know them. And I’ve been surprised by a lot of good people.