First Black Woman to Complete SUNY Adirondack Cyber Program

The State University of New York's Adirondack campus says the first Black woman to graduate from its cybersecurity program will do so this year. It's a field that has historically included few women and Black students.

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Photo credit: SUNY Adirondack Facebook page
(TNS) — Keonna Barnes is making history at SUNY Adirondack as the very first Black woman to take part in the university's cybersecurity program.

"I always liked setting up computers," Barnes said. "I really like coding."

When she graduates later this year, Barnes will be the first Black woman to do so with an associate degree in cybersecurity from SUNY Adirondack, putting her at the forefront of a pioneering industry.

The National Science Foundation reported that Hispanic, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native workers made up only 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) force in America as of 2021. The Aspin Institute reported that same year that only 24 percent of cybersecurity workers are women, and only 9 percent are Black.

Barnes knew early on that she wanted to enter a career that combined her desire to help people with her proficiency with computers.

"Well, being from the Bronx and being an introvert, I never really leave my room," she said with a laugh.

It was while watching a news report on cyber hackers with her mother, that Barnes said she found her potential calling.

"The reporter spoke on a variety of cases of companies getting hacked," she explained. "As I was watching, a thought occurred (to me), 'there's a lot of news about hackers attacking companies, but you never hear any stories of who stopped or resolved it.' So I figured there must not be enough people."

When the time came for Barnes to find a college that could teach her the technical skills she needed to make her career dream come true, she found SUNY Adirondack was just the ticket. But that doesn't mean it came easily. Barnes said she struggled early on in her college career, just acclimating to the upstate area, a part of the state she said she didn't even really know existed.

"It was really hard," she said.

To further complicate things, Barnes said she has struggled with a comprehension issue for most of her life.

"You know the phrase, 'in one ear and out the other,' it's really like that," she explained. "Sometimes (information) just doesn't register."

Going back as far as elementary school, Barnes said she's had to request additional time for tests and certain assignments to compensate for the concentration issue. Sometimes, she has to review materials several times before being able to retain them — no small hurdle to surmount given that she is studying the extremely technical world of cybersecurity.

From day one, however, Barnes said she has had the support she's needed from the SUNY Adirondack Accessibility Services office.

"The Accessibility's Office has provided me with services, such as recorded lectures, and extended time on tests in a separate location," she said. "(It) has been a great experience for me. ... They have been so supportive in my academic career and studies."

Not just academically, Barnes said coordinator Linda Possemato, as well as others in the Accessibility Services office, have become like a second family for her and helped her not feel so far from home.

"It's like a theory session every time I go in there," she said with a laugh.

Barnes said initially she did not want to be defined and categorized as the person with a disability.

But Barnes is an advocate for doing just that, and her advice to anyone who finds themselves locked in a struggle is to first be honest with themselves.

"As of right now, I'm not afraid to tell people (about my disability, or that I need assistance because of my disability), because I can't improve myself and my life if others aren't aware of the circumstance," she said. "The more they know, the better it is for us both to communicate and for me to comprehend better."

Barnes said that once she accepted her disability as a part of who she is, rather than a thing to be ashamed of, she was able to find the ways she needed to work around the issue, instead of being consumed by it.

"(Don't) be afraid of your disability," she said. "This is your life. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself. So, if you're thinking of going to college, seek out the accessibility services. ... My ASO office has helped me in more ways than they know. Cybersecurity at SUNY Adirondack was the best choice I've ever made."

©2023 The Post Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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