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Cyber talent earns Hayes full ride to graduate school

March 15, 2021

Thomas Hayes left no stone unturned when it came to building his credentials and helping others while he was a student at the University of North Georgia (UNG). Now, the December 2020 graduate with a bachelor's degree in information systems has parlayed those qualities into a prestigious full-ride graduate school scholarship.

Hayes is pursuing a master's degree in cybersecurity and privacy at New Jersey Institute of Technology through the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, which covers full tuition, a $34,000 annual stipend, health insurance, and money for professional development and textbooks. Funded by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the scholarship is designed to recruit and train the next generation of information technology professionals, industrial control system security professionals, and security managers to meet the cybersecurity needs of all levels of government.

Dr. Richelle Oakley, associate professor of information systems at UNG, mentored Hayes through the McNair Scholars Program. She recalls him juggling his senior year coursework, studying for and earning the CompTIA Security+ certificate, mentoring high school students, and applying for graduate school.

"Over the time that we worked together with the McNair program, Thomas learned how to maximize his time management skills to effectively engage in multiple tasks at once," Oakley said.

The McNair Program is designed to prepare sophomores, juniors and seniors from all UNG campuses for post-graduate studies through involvement in research and scholarly activities.

Hayes' McNair research focused on mitigating the spread of misinformation on social media by examining whether a list of related articles could change people's likelihood to believe false information. He presented this research at an information systems conference and submitted the paper to a business journal for publication.

He also took part in the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, where he researched public awareness of cybersecurity careers. During an online National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates through North Dakota State University in summer 2020, he coded software to calculate credibility scores for simulated social media accounts.

Hayes credits a mindset of constant learning for his trajectory.

"I love a challenge, and I'm good at researching how to do different things," Hayes said. "I'm a quick learner, and I'm not afraid to call myself a beginner. I like to be on the cutting edge as much as possible."

Dr. Bryan Dawson, principal investigator for the McNair Scholars Program at UNG, appreciated the way Hayes worked with Upward Bound students and served as a research ambassador for the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities.

Hayes' acumen for tackling major tasks also impressed Dawson.

"He's very self-motivated and determined. When given a directive, he's very quick to break it down to its basic components," Dawson said. "He makes a plan and timeline, and he is clear in terms of following up and asking for feedback."

A reverse engineering course with Dr. Bryson Payne, professor of computer science and director of UNG's Center for Cyber Operations Education, during Hayes' final undergraduate semester helped prepare him for graduate studies.

"Thomas is a great example of the kind of cyber leader UNG is known for producing, serving as a mentor and tutor to first-generation college students and helping lead our cyber competition teams to win the NSA Codebreaker Challenge for a second year in a row," Payne said.

Hayes has provided the blueprint for others at UNG to follow.

"He served as a role model for our other McNair students. He showed other students this is possible," Dawson said. "I know he's going to succeed. He's really well set-up."

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