Empowering HEPIA Students and Geneva-based Nonprofits for Positive Social Impact
Just as Google announced its $20 million commitment to help thousands of students get hands-on experience in cybersecurity, the CyberPeace Institute successfully concluded the pilot phase of its first Students’ Initiative through the CyberPeace Builders program. Running from February to June 2023, the Initiative offered students a valuable combination of learning opportunities and social impact. It involved them in meaningful cybersecurity activities benefiting Geneva-based nonprofits, while enhancing their prospects for a career in cybersecurity.
The Initiative adopted a cyberclinic approach, a first in Geneva and in Switzerland. A university-based cybersecurity clinic provides students from diverse backgrounds with the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience, while strengthening the digital defenses of nonprofits and other under-resourced organizations. 25 students from the Geneva School of Landscape, Engineering and Architecture (HEPIA) – most of them in their second and third university year studying IT and communication systems – were split into three groups and assigned to a nonprofit organization with different cybersecurity maturity levels and needs. The Initiative had two primary objectives:
- Offer students a unique learning experience by engaging them in collective social action;
- Broaden the students’ awareness of potential cybersecurity career paths by exposing them to the cyber needs of nonprofits assisting vulnerable populations.
During the Initiative, the students conducted assessments of the nonprofits’ cybersecurity levels and identified areas where improvements were needed. Each student group delivered between 2 to 3 missions per organization. These missions ranged from technical to people-oriented. For example, one student group assisted a nonprofit with a vulnerability scan of their website, identifying security gaps and advising on how to remedy them. Another student group has invited the nonprofit they were working with for a cybersecurity awareness session for all staff.
The nonprofits participating in this pilot phase of the Students’ Initiative were impressed by the knowledge and professionalism the students had shown during their interactions. Roberto Bonino, the Director of the Centre for Dialogue and Progress – Geneva, stated:
“The discussions with the students and their teachers were very useful in clarifying our cybersecurity situation and needs. The assignments completed provided us with concrete avenues for improvement.”
Raphaël Tellin, the Director of Stop Suicide, highlighted that the added value of this Initiative was emerging from both the fact that it was free for the nonprofits to join and “the relation between the little time invested by the organization and the positive, visible outcomes of the Initiative on their cybersecurity infrastructure.”
The students were equally satisfied by their participation in the Initiative, with more than half of them saying that they would highly recommend it to their colleagues, while admitting that this experience has broadened their future career paths in cybersecurity (i.e., considering working for a nonprofit organization). As stated by a student:
“I’m pleased to have been part of this initiative and I’d like to encourage you to continue this fantastic work. It made us aware of the problems linked to IT security for NGOs, but also problems in the IT field in general. What’s more, this opportunity gives students like me the chance to take part in a practical project aimed at improving the day-to-day running of an NGO.”
Another student added that the Initiative “allows students to get to grips with problems in the professional world and even has the social impact of helping someone else.”
The student supervisors have also expressed their satisfaction in the Initiative. Besides unanimously agreeing that the Initiative allowed the students to apply the knowledge learned during their courses to specific cases, they are more than happy to recommend the Initiative to professors in other Universities and to take part again the following year. A supervisor affirmed that the Initiative “introduced IT security concepts applied to very real cases’’, while another supervisor added that “applying the principles we learned in class enables us [professors] to train real-life engineers”, highlighted that the Initiative was “enriching in terms of the interaction between teaching and real-life situations.”
Thus, by combining education and social impact, the Initiative inspired students to consider the vital role they can play as future cybersecurity professionals. Students gained hands-on experience, addressed real-world challenges, and actively contributed to the cyber-resilience of nonprofit organizations. The Initiative successfully achieved its objectives of providing a unique learning experience for students, broadening their awareness of potential career paths in humanitarian cybersecurity.