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State Department official addresses CybHER campers - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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State Department official addresses CybHER campers

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Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2019 3:49 pm

Middle school girls from eight states learned how a high school athlete who valued friendship became a cyber diplomat on Tuesday at the CybHER Camp being hosted by Dakota State University this week.

"What unites us here today is we're all students," Joanna LaHaie, a senior policy adviser with the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, told the girls as she began her hour-long presentation.

According to a press release from DSU, the camp was developed in response to research which shows that while women are underrepresented in technology fields, girls can become interested in cyber sciences if reached at a younger age. Camp sessions focus on six cybersecurity concepts: defense in depth, confidentiality, integrity, availability, thinking like an adversary, and keeping it simple.

The camp is funded by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation. LaHaie is one of three guests who will speak with the girls during the camp. Amber Schroader, a pioneer in the field of computer forensics, spoke with the girls on Monday. Gov. Kristi Noem spoke with them on Wednesday afternoon.

LaHaie ended her presentation by giving the girls permission to fail.

"It will help you to ultimately discover what you will be good at," she said.

However, her presentation focused on making choices that  reflect personal interests and are a response to circumstances that arise. She began by identifying herself as an athlete, an animal lover, a good friend and someone who loves learning.

She talked about her early passion for math. In second grade, she and a classmate would race to complete their math worksheets. In high school, she continued to study math.

"Math for me was a fun subject," LaHaie said. "I loved it and did well."

In college, she continued to study math but did not do as well in her second year. This distressed her, so she talked with her dad. He advised her to explore other areas, which is how she ended up majoring in political science with a math minor.

"What I realized is: the most important thing to me was the ability to allow myself to explore," LaHaie said.

She also emphasized the importance of finding mentors. She took most of her college math classes from the same professor because his teaching style matched her learning style.

"Finding people you can learn from and people you want to be like drives you down the path you want to go," LaHaie said.

After graduating from college, she wasn't sure what to do. She considered both law school and the Peace Corps. She decided to work as a paralegal to see if she might like studying law, which is how she ended up working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"It gave me a chance to travel the world and I loved it," LaHaie said.

As much as she loved traveling and was fascinated by the Justice Department's efforts to combat cybercrime, she also learned that she wasn't interested in studying law.

"At this point in my life, I took a risk. I joined the Peace Corps," she said.

She became a math teacher in a West African nation called The Gambia. There, she helped to start a math club that partnered middle school students with high school tutors, which helped both to have a stronger foundation in math.

That was just part of the experience, though.

"I basically was looking to make friends wherever I went," LaHaie said, reminding the girls that friendship is important to her.

In leaving the Peace Corps, she was considering graduate school when she was approached by a former colleague from the Justice Department who asked if she would be interested in working for the Department of State. There, she works with an international community to define what is acceptable and unacceptable in cyberspace.

"What is malicious?" she said, defining the question they are seeking to answer.

"This is a global technology we're all using," she continued, explaining why it is important for a shared understanding among the world's many nations.

"We can't do this alone. We need friends and allies," LaHaie emphasized.

She introduced the students to the U.S. National Cyber Strategy, which was released in September 2018. She also spoke about the importance of having women in this field because of the skills they bring, especially leadership, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.

"It's no longer just about coding," LaHaie said. "It's about the people who use the technology."

She noted that critical thinking, creativity and communication skills are becoming increasingly more important. She told the 115 girls attending the CybHER Camp that they are the future.

"I encourage you to allow yourselves to explore and challenge yourselves," LaHaie said.

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