On Sept. 10, Mercyhurst University’s learning differences program, the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), announced they received a $300,000 federal grant to help pilot an initiative to merge neuro-diverse students and cybersecurity. The goal of the grant is to expand cybersecurity jobs at federal agencies for students with autism and will hopefully expand career opportunities to those in Mercyhurst’s already nationally acclaimed AIM department.
Mercyhurst’s AIM program was one of the first in the country and has historically proven that those on the autistic spectrum are an untapped source of potential talent. It focuses on building self-advocacy, social skills and academic progress. Founded in 2008 with four students, the AIM program now oversees over seventy students and has grown as both a leader and resource for institutions across the country.
Bradley McGarry, Director of the AIM program, will serve as Mercyhurst’s representative on the team for now.
“I think part of it’s cybersecurity, but Mercyhurst’s connection with the project was our vocational programming with our autism students so that was our primary link. It’s very good that we just happen to have one of the world’s top cybersecurity programs,” McGarry said.
The pilot is to be run in conjunction with nine other respected corporate and institutional partners. Headed by MITRE Corporation, the aim of the $300,000 federal grant is to create cybersecurity opportunities for neuro-diverse people at federal agencies. Some of the big corporate names involved are Microsoft, the German company SAP (Systems, Applications, and Products in Data Processing), Danish company Specialisterne and the DXC Dandelion Program which is dedicated to helping those on the autistic spectrum build technology and IT skills as well as prepare for future careers. The other institutions included on the team are George Mason University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland and Drexel University.
McGarry’s expertise in the realm of autistic employment is one of the reasons why Mercyhurst was selected to partake in this effort with its prestigious partners. He hopes that eventually there will be ten to twelve different individuals and that some of the Mercyhurst Cybersecurity department will be listed in the future. It is also his goal to eventually tie in more Mercyhurst resources as well.
If the pilot is successful, Mercyhurst’s entire security department will benefit from this collaboration. Currently, the AIM department is working with Mercyhurst Cybersecurity on a few other different collaborations unrelated to the grant.
“We know from our work in the AIM program that our students are well suited to fill cyber positions and we are honored to be selected for this team as a content expert in our field, and for what we have accomplished with our programming at Mercyhurst,” McGarry said.
The project leverages several leading practices, methodologies and tools that have been successfully used in private and non-U.S. government agencies. The goal is to create a Federal Neurodiversity Cyber Workforce program and then test it with a federal agency. This beginning project will focus on training the participating agency to find, hire, train, support and retain those on the spectrum for cyber careers.
The new grant that the University received is a direct result of a competition sponsored by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration to help the government solve some of its toughest management challenges. As a result of the grant, Mercyhurst students in the AIM program will likely be offered even more career opportunities within federal agencies in the future.
“The universities and corporations that are on this select committee make up a pretty prestigious group to be a part of,” McGarry said. “But truthfully, the project and the grant was gifted to this team to help the federal government build diversity employment initiatives within the federal government.”
The federal government gave money to the private sector to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas. In this initiative, Mercyhurst is helping the federal government in taking a problem that they have struggled with, i.e. neuro-diverse employment, and coming back with a new and innovative solution to their problem.
“Once the program is effectively running, it creates a pipeline for Mercyhurst and its AIM students,” McGarry said. “It’s another feather in our cap that will benefit the university by getting Mercyhurst’s name out there next to the bigger institutions like RIT and Drexel. People will see Mercyhurst for our AIM program as well as everything else that we offer here.”