Cyber sleuth in the making

Junior Rohan Nunugonda made the most of his quarantine by competing with CyberStart America, an online competition that teaches students concepts in cybersecurity. He quickly became hooked and was invited to compete in the National Cyber Scholarship competition (NCS). Nunugonda placed 88th among the 4,760 students who qualified for the competition and was awarded a $2,500 college scholarship.

By Rohan Nunugonda ’22

Codebreaking? Password cracking? Is it going to be like the movies? Will I learn to be a hacker? I was intrigued when Ms.Wolfe, my computer science teacher, informed me that Cyberstart America was free for all high school students to join. Last November, amidst the pandemic and my self-imposed quarantine, I decided to try it. 

Little did I know that Cyberstart would awaken within me a hidden passion. 

Cyberstart Game is an online Capture the Flag contest that teaches students key concepts of cybersecurity. In order to progress through the game, one must complete the different challenges and find the hidden “flag” for each challenge, a small string that signals that you have completed the challenge successfully and have learned the underlying concept. Cyberstart taught me skills that I had barely heard of before, such as web and binary exploitation (breaking websites and files and finding weaknesses) and cryptography (making and breaking codes and messages). But as I progressed through the various levels, Cyberstart didn’t just feel like a simple game anymore; rather, it felt like an experience that taught me more than just technical abilities. Cyberstart taught me how to problem-solve, how to properly research and find answers to my questions, how to persevere and when to take mental breaks. 

My journey took a turn when I received an email from Cyberstart congratulating me on qualifying for the National Cyber Scholarship Competition (NCS).

I spent the next four months prepping as hard as I could for the national competition in April. Striving for higher levels of CyberStart, I was even able to reach their Headquarters Base’s Level 13, the highest level they have! The puzzles in Level 13 are all designed around real past cybercrimes. Other bases included the Moon base, where I learned Python programming, and the Forensics base that taught me to be a cyberspy, looking out for hints and traces of suspicious activities on computers. As the competition day rolled around, I felt ready.

The NCS was an unforgettable experience. The challenges were varied and creative; I felt a rush of adrenaline as I attempted to solve all of them within the 48 hours time limit. While some were easy, and only took a few minutes, others seemed impossible. However, every time I got intimidated by a question, I realized the importance of just taking a deep breath and then just scouring the internet for whatever I didn’t know. I found that my patience, perseverance and the skills I learned paid off when the final scores displayed on the screen. I placed 88th among the approximate 4,760 participants and was later notified that I was selected as a National Cyber Scholarship Finalist!

Overall, the experience I gained with Cyberstart and the National Cyber Competition was priceless. Cybersecurity is one of the world’s most in-demand tech careers and the idea of gamified learning resonated with me. Through Cyberstart, I understood that cybersecurity is more than a field of study that some may choose to take; it is a necessity in our growing technological era. As technology grows, so do cyber threats, and it is crucial that we obtain knowledge of these threats to be safe and secure. It is a career that I never considered before - and now I’m now hooked. Cyberstart and NCS ignited my interest to continue exploring this vast field of cybersecurity.