When an international student arrives on campus, she is a bundle of emotions – including a big willingness to try hard and give it her best shot, recalls computer science major Thao Trinh, who arrived as a first-year student from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2017 wanting to study white-hat hacking.
Her English and communication skills were shaky back then, the now-confident Trinh acknowledges, but she says she need not have worried – the campus community came through for her with solid support. “A lot of people here helped me to make it,” she says. “I have come a really long way.”
Trinh, a senior planning to graduate in May with a degree from the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), this past semester completed a highly competitive mentorship through the Cybersecurity Mentorship Pilot Program sponsored by the MassCyberCenter.
A Baker administration initiative to boost resiliency and diversity in the Commonwealth’s cybersecurity sector, the program matched her with a mentor at MIT’s elite Lincoln Laboratory. The mentoring opened her eyes to a broader range of cybersecurity research than she ever imagined, she says.
“White-hat hackers are like the police, we catch criminals, we find bugs,” she explains. “We design defenses and alert software developers when we find a bug. They know that when you develop something, you can’t test it yourself, you need an outsider to use it, find the weaknesses and give you recommendations on how to fix it,” she explains. “Sometimes it takes a whole online community.”
Trinh recalls her parents resisting her wish for a career with computers – “not the kind of job for a girl to do,” she explains. “I had to show my parents how computers and information science are increasingly important, to social media and even to the national government.”
Trinh also is grateful to her CICS advisor and cybersecurity expert Amir Houmansadr, and to Jack Wileden, CICS associate dean of student affairs. Trinh says, “I had some struggles and he was always there to help.”
She also credits the Learning Resource Center, where she has been a supplemental instructor for three years, with crucial support. “It’s where I started to deliver my passion and share my knowledge with other students. That’s how I built my confidence and my public speaking skills and learned how to talk to people and connect with the community. Now I keep telling my students, if you want to do something just go and do it.”