From Nigeria to the U.S. Department of Defense: IASP Scholarship Recipient’s Journey Leads to a Cybersecurity Career

It was the Diversity Visa lottery that helped set University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Information Assurance Scholarship Program (IASP) recipient Charles Kolawole’s course for a career in cybersecurity and good fortune. Kolawole, one of the visa-lottery winners in 2006, came into the United States on January 27, 2007, in search of greener pastures and an opportunity to compete on a global stage.

His journey was not an easy one. Born in Nigeria, West Africa, he describes himself as a child of parents with “average education” compared to that of other parents in the suburb where he grew up.

The son of an agricultural equipment mechanic and a teacher, Kolawole learned the value of education at an early age. When he wasn’t in school, he was spending time at a farm settlement taking care of the poultry.

“My mother wouldn’t allow me to tarnish her teaching image and my father wouldn’t allow me to be like most other children on the street,” he said. “I thought they hated me then, but I am happy today for the upbringing they gave me.”

A latecomer to technology, Kolawole operated a computer for the first time when he was in his mid-30s. “In Nigeria, when I was growing up, computers belonged to the rich, private companies and business centers,” he said. His first associate degree was in special education with a minor in agricultural science. He followed that with an undergraduate degree in public administration.

But Kolawole realized that becoming computer literate was the essential step toward securing a job and advancing his career. The path toward literacy wasn’t easy, though. Kolawole could not afford to attend local computer training centers, so he began his education at cafés where he learned computer operations with the help of younger friends and neighbors.

Once in the U.S., Kolawole eventually completed his undergraduate degree in digital media and web technology at UMUC. In the fall of 2017, Kolawole received the highly competitive IASP scholarship, worth approximately $43,000 to cover the cost of tuition, technology, and a stipend, which allowed Kolawole to continue his graduate-level cybersecurity digital forensics studies at UMUC.

Kolawole’s performance in and out of the classroom solidified his candidacy for the scholarship. He excelled in his undergraduate and graduate courses in computer technologies, information assurance, digital forensics and cybersecurity. His professors say that he clearly articulated facts and ideas, and demonstrated both a drive to succeed and a commitment to solving cyber and information systems issues and challenges.

But his accomplishments outside of the classroom also played a role in his selection. “The amazing thing about Charles’ academic accomplishment is that he completed all of his requirements while also fulfilling the responsibilities of husband and father, full-time employment, and his role as minister at his church,” said Loyce Pailen, director of UMUC’s Center for Security Studies.

“Charles excelled in his undergraduate and graduate courses related to computer technologies, information assurance digital forensics and cybersecurity,” she added.

Kolawole completed the cybersecurity program at UMUC in spring 2018, and now, his journey has landed him at the Department of Defense, where he will be working with the U.S. Army, HQ Army Cyber—Future Operations. As someone who has benefitted from hard work, good fortune and help from a scholarship program, Kolawole said he hopes to pay it forward as his career develops and grows.

“I see myself as a formidable resource and voice on information security in the United States and beyond,” he said. “And as a beneficiary of various scholarship awards, I hope to become an information security awards supporter or owner of a scholarship award foundation.”

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