The first quartet of enlisted service members to attend the Naval Postgraduate School's master's of applied cyber operations degree program, clockwise from left: Chief Information Systems Technician Javon Burden, ITC Deyan Dontchev, IT1 Thomas Skoff and ITC Rachel Doucet. (Javier Chagoya / Navy)
The first class of full-time enlisted students is set to graduate from the prestigious Naval Postgraduate School in late September with master’s degrees. The group of four cyberwarriors signals a shift for what was created as an officers-only institution.
While the focus is on cyber for now, NPS officials are looking at more ways to incorporate sailors into the curriculum.
Located in Monterey, Calif., NPS has largely been the preserve of midcareer officers since its establishment 104 years ago. The first enlisted sailors were initially worried they wouldn’t fit in. But they got along with their classmates, many on a first-name basis, and soon found themselves to be, well, Big Sailors On Campus.
“For the first two semesters, whenever we had guest speakers or any type of distinguished visitor… they wanted to meet us,” said Chief Information Systems Technician (IDW/SW) Javon Burden, who is set to graduate Sept. 27. “It’s almost like we became celebrities.”
Burden and his three peers were there to become cyber experts, capable of defending the Navy’s computer systems or breaking into an enemy’s. NPS, which teaches cyberwarfare to midgrade officers in a classified setting, has seats open in its classes and has started enrolling top enlisted, who are often the foot soldiers and platoon leaders of the so-called “fifth domain.”
“The enlisted guys coming in actually have a lot more hands-on experience than the officers in a lot of cases,” said Duane Davis, who teaches courses for the yearlong master’s in applied cyber operations.
Eligible candidates must be first classes or above, in the information systems technician or cryptologic technician ratings, and hold a bachelor’s degree. They must apply for NPS admission and also be chosen by Navy Personnel Command. The newest four selectees were announced July 26 in a fleetwide message, NAVADMIN 186/13.
NPS demands math skills and the ability to grapple with abstract concepts. One of the sailors found a course on cyber strategy challenging for this reason.
“One thing I’ve been getting from this course is that we haven’t really nailed down cyber strategy or cyber policy,” said Information Systems Technician 1st Class (IDW/SW/AW) Thomas Skoff. “There’s no right or wrong answer yet. I think it’s just a matter of trying to understand what the best way to manage cyberspace is.”
These four aren’t the first sailors to take an NPS class: Enlisted staff stationed there may take classes on the side. However, the cyber master’s is the only program that takes full-time enlisted students, NPS officials said.
Good news is NPS is open to expanding; professors say this could be a model for other courses opening up to enlisted.
“Our enlisted students are doing very well,” said Cynthia Irvine, who chairs NPS’ cyber academic group. “They’re very competitive in their classes and doing really excellent work, in some cases doing better than a lot of the officers.”