Thad Sander, Cybersecurity, NSF Scholarship for Service

Like many in the technology fields, third-year Cybersecurity major Thaddeus (Thad) Sander played a lot of online video games when he was younger, and his mom would change the internet password when he misbehaved. He distinctly remembers when he first figured out how to connect to their home router’s web page to find the new password.

“I felt like a mini-hacker every time my mom would change the password; I would have to sneak onto her phone to connect to the router to find the new password,” recalls Sander. “Eventually, she caught on and adapted, so I would have to find other ways to get around new restrictions. It almost became a game.”

To pursue his aptitude for cybersecurity more constructively, in his senior year of high school Sander completed a career technical education (CTE) class in computer networking and cybersecurity. He says the class taught him what actual hacking is like, and helped him discover the many aspects of the cybersecurity field. Also part of the class, Sander completed a summer internship with Michigan Tech’s IT department.

Below, Sander has shared some of his cybersecurity and Scholarship for Service experiences.

Why have you chosen to pursue a Cybersecurity education and career?
I originally applied to Michigan Tech under the CS program, and switched to the CNSA program after I took the CTE class my senior year and realized I enjoyed working with actual systems, networking, and hardware more than just programming. Before I started my first semester, however, Michigan Tech added the Cybersecurity bachelor’s program and I switched into that. I am very happy with where I ended up, and I feel like it is a good fit, because in the Cybersecurity sector I am not limited in what I could learn; everything in the technology field can be related back to security. I feel like cybersecurity and its importance is growing rapidly; we don’t have a large enough workforce with the education or experience to protect people from the actual cybercriminals that pose a threat to individuals, businesses, and critical infrastructure.

Why did you apply for the Scholarship for Service opportunity?
I applied to the Scholarship for Service program because I knew I really wanted to work for the Federal government, and that this program would be a phenomenal opportunity to get me on that path as early as possible.

What does this opportunity mean to you?
This opportunity means a lot. It gives me the chance to accelerate my career readiness through programs outside of school. It gives me the funds to focus on my education instead of juggling a job at the same time, along with completely paying for my education. It has also been a large motivational factor in trying to excel and put myself forward for more opportunities, so I can stand out as an applicant for jobs within the federal government.

Outside of coursework, what other SFS-related activities are you engaged in?
I attend a weekly conference with all of the first-year SFS students from around the country. Different federal agencies give talks on recruitment opportunities, share tips for resumes and improving soft skills, and attend networking sessions with the other SFS students so we can get to know each other. Recently, I completed an SFS workshop, which covered cybersecurity topics from network security to reverse engineering malware. There is also a federal career fair SFS students can attend twice a year. I was able to attend the first one, which was held virtually in September, and I plan on attending the next one in January, which is in Washington, DC.

Are you involved with student organizations?
I am actively involved with both the RedTeam and the Networking and Computing Student Association (NCSA). With RedTeam, I have competed in various cybersecurity competitions. Most recently, at the National Cyber League (NCL) competition, my group was the second team to finish the competition, ending the competition in the top 10 in the nation overall. In the NCSA, I am a part of the security operations team, handling security orchestration and automated threat response and analysis.

What are your future plans?
My plans for the future are, while I’m in school, to continue participating in competitions, attend cybersecurity workshops, and even obtain some cybersecurity certificates, like the CompTIA Security+, using the professional development fund from the scholarship. For long-term plans, I plan on working in the federal government and gaining as much experience and professional relationships in the industry as possible, perhaps eventually starting my own security consulting company.

Will you pursue a master’s degree?
I would like to pursue a master’s degree while at Michigan Tech, but because the SFS program has a max term of three years, by the time I finish my bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years, I won’t have enough time. So, I plan on going back to school for my master’s while working in the federal government under an agency’s continuing education benefits.

In what sector/industry would you like to work? Why?
I would like to work in the Threat Response or Digital Forensics sector because there I would be able to work with real world cyber-attacks, investigate how they happened, and prevent them from happening again in the future.

What else would you like to share about the SFS scholarship?
For people considering applying to the program, but don’t feel like they are qualified enough, I felt the same way. However, it’s not up to you to decide whether or not you are qualified for a position, it’s up to the people checking your application. It is always worth a shot.

What do you love about the College of Computing?
I really enjoy the instructors in the College of Computing. They are really passionate in what they do, always willing to help you outside of the classroom, and they regularly forward internship and work opportunities to students. Also, the computing cluster in our labs is really nice because it allows us to run multiple virtual machines; it’s great hands-on experience using a variety of systems.

A few personal details.
Sander, 20, has lived in the Houghton area most of his life. He graduated from Houghton High School in 2019. Two of Sander’s three sisters attend Michigan Tech, and a younger sister graduates from Houghton High School next spring. Sander’s mother, a Michigan Tech alumna, works on the professional staff at Michigan Tech. He enjoys competitive gaming, and soccer when the weather is nice.