Assessing risk and defending against it comes naturally to Joel Fonseca. For eight-and-a-half years he kept watch over our nation’s infrastructure as a Security Forces Specialist in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He knows what can happen when organizations don’t prioritize cybersecurity or employees responsible for it simply take their eye off the ball.
“Information is becoming increasingly valuable, as we’ve seen through various cases with large companies having data breaches,” he said. “Having employees that are aware of the risks in cybersecurity, and what the bad actors are trying to target and do, just makes the overall organization stronger. And hopefully prevents situations like that from occurring.”
Fonseca has spent his civilian career in financial investing and operations, working for large brokerage firms such as Merrill, Edward Jones and Charles Schwab, as well as Bank of America. He earned a bachelor’s in business management from the Florida Institute of Technology in 2017 and a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) credential two years later. However, he wanted a master’s degree that would build on his military and corporate experience.
He chose La Salle University’s online M.S. in Cybersecurity – Data Science program.
Fonseca completed his degree in January 2022 and reports that it’s already paying off. He worked as a compliance analyst for online stock brokerage service TradeStation while studying at La Salle and was promoted to Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Officer nine months after graduation.
Improving Cyber Resilience
As Fonseca notes, knowing how to stop bad actors ― and anticipate attacks that compromise data integrity, confidentiality or accessibility ― is crucial in business. “Any company that operates on the internet, which is pretty much any company in this day and age, has to deal with cybersecurity,” he said. “It has to be a top priority.”
Ransomware takeovers and security breaches have now become routine. Many companies are also targeted through their employees via email phishing scams, cloud hacking, smartphone malware and more. Insider threats from cyber espionage and sabotage keep growing. These circumstances make digital security experts like Fonseca indispensable and key to an organization’s health and survival.
“I work in the financial sector, which is considered critical infrastructure,” he said. “I think [the M.S. in Cybersecurity] translates well, whether you’re in a position like mine or not. In my particular case, what it has equated to is me being looked at as a subject matter expert on this topic and a valuable resource to my team.”
La Salle’s program offered Fonseca a good mix of network theory and practical skills. He also liked having access to the latest security software and applications and using those in projects.
“This gave me the opportunity to get hands-on exposure to a number of industry tools,” he said, “which not only increased my understanding of cybersecurity concepts but also increased my value in the workforce.”
Turning Risk into Opportunity
Fonseca’s transition to graduate school at La Salle was seamless, from admission to certifying his military education benefits. He quickly realized that learning online would be a great fit for his situation. “As somebody that works full-time, my schedule’s quite dynamic,” he said.
The structure of the online M.S. in Cybersecurity – Data Science program helped Fonseca stay on track. Learning modules featured assignments he could do at his own pace, plus manageable weekly deadlines. “Having that flexibility and knowing what’s ahead of me allowed me to be successful in the program,” he noted. “That online environment allowed me to thrive.”
Fonseca’s favorite class was Artificial Intelligence, given its applications for the future of business. However, he found the rest of the program just as relevant. “I really enjoyed all of the coursework,” he said. “What made it so easy for me was that every class was engaging.”
He appreciated La Salle’s faculty as well. “The professors I worked with were highly educated and had extensive backgrounds in the field,” he said. “I felt that was valuable, getting to learn from them and hear from their personal experiences.”
Fonseca also liked collaborating with students from a broad range of disciplines and learning from them. “We got to pick their brains and see how this skillset works in different career fields and the options that could come with it,” he said.
Staying Connected to the Network
The strong personal and professional ties Fonseca forged while earning his master’s degree are something he doesn’t take for granted, because the sense of community he enjoyed during his program didn’t end with graduation. “The alumni from La Salle, as well as the professors, are always sharing opportunities in the industry,” he said.
“We’re connected on LinkedIn and they see what I’m doing and I see what they’re doing. It’s great to have that network,” he continued. “Ultimately, we all want to help each other succeed.”
The support of his offline community was also important. Fonseca’s wife and kids adjusted activities around his study schedule and gave him the focus time he needed to complete assignments. He was also able to use his military education benefits to help defray the cost.
He hopes his experience will inspire others to pursue the degree and overcome any doubts about the knowledge or skill level required to do well in the courses. “If you don’t have that technical background, you might be afraid to dive into a cybersecurity program,” he said, admitting that he had the same concerns initially. “The programs and tools in place will allow somebody without that skill set to work in this industry.”
Fonseca’s success at La Salle proves his point: students don’t have to be coders, developers or computer science majors to earn a master’s in cybersecurity. “You can go after these opportunities,” he said.
“It was a great investment.”