When Kath Kennelly was growing up on a farm in Lowell, Indiana, she never imagined she would someday be a technology pioneer.
Then again, she didn’t shy away from the opportunity when it arose, either.
Kennelly will make history as the first graduate of the Cybersecurity and Global Policy program at IU, a collaborative partnership between the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. She earned her bachelor’s degree by completing the necessary work in just three semesters.
“Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of access to the internet or resources online,” Kennelly said. “When I finally got to college, I started exploring that avenue and getting more into technology. At the time, I was studying international relations in Arabic, and I heard rumors about them creating a cybersecurity degree. Knowing that there’s a big intersection between cybersecurity and international relations, I thought that would be really awesome.”
Kennelly reached out to Isak Nti Asare, the associate director of the cybersecurity and global policy program, to find out more once the program was announced, and he assured her she could do the necessary work to earn the degree.
“We could not have hand picked a better first graduate for this program,” Nti Asare said. “Kath has worked tirelessly over the last year and a half in diligent pursuit of her goals. There is no doubt in my mind that the same drive and commitment will position Kath to play a meaningful role in cyber policy on a global stage.”
Graduating on schedule, however, would take some focus, especially since Kennelly was working full-time for the past year.
“It really feels amazing,” Kennelly said. “To some degree, I’m really proud of myself. It was a lot of long nights. I’m proud of how much I pushed myself, and it means a lot to me as a woman that I can set the stage and show that women are going to be in this field. Cybersecurity is intrinsic in foreign affairs, and I’m hoping this degree will set the stage for me to impact policy in the future.”
Her lack of experience with technology was initially an obstacle—“I would never consider myself a programmer”—but she overcame that challenge partially through her involvement with University Information Technology Services. Her dedication to what she was attempting to do also made an impact.
“If you’re the first person doing something, you kind of want to make a good run of it,” Kennelly said. “I wanted people around me to get excited about the degree, and I think it’s working. I see more and more people joining the program, and it’s a good sign that I’m pulling it off.”
Despite the fact the cybersecurity and global policy program has only been available for less than two years, Kennelly also relied on existing resources for support. The Luddy School already offered a cybersecurity concentration, allowing Kennelly to network with students who are focused on that aspect of the degree, and organizations such as the Women in Cybersecurity club allowed her to become more comfortable in the classroom.
“We designed our cybersecurity and global policy program to meet the various needs of the private and public entities that are navigating an increasingly complex but interwoven world,” said Esfan Haghverdi, the executive associate dean for undergraduate education at the Luddy School and the director of the cybersecurity and global policy program. “Kath’s determination and willingness to overcome any challenge that may have presented itself to her in her pursuit of this degree has inspired everyone who has watched her work.”
Kennelly already has a position as a product manager for Denver-based CyberGRX, which provides third-party risk management for companies and global organizations, and she’s interested in developing products that are intrinsically secure, allowing users the freedom to not have to think about security. She also hopes to inspire other women to get involved in the field.
“Inclusivity is important to me,” Kennelly said. “I want to be a mentor to a lot of students, and I really want to give back to the state of Indiana. I grew up here, and I’m proof you don’t have to come from a certain background to excel in this field. Cybersecurity is very broad. There are a lot of different fields to pursue. I decided to start out with product management, but some people focus on security operations. Others focus primarily on policy. You shouldn’t restrict yourself when it comes to things you can take on. Push yourself when it comes to testing your limits.”
Kennelly is the latest woman to play a pioneering role in cybersecurity. An upcoming project from IU’s Center of Excellence for Women and Technology aims to highlight the critical contributions women have made in the field of cybersecurity. Student researchers at IU have explored the history of women in cybersecurity and cryptography by combing through the IU archives, National Security Agency Databases, and other sources to put a spotlight on their contributions. IU also plans to honor the work of Elizebeth Smith Freidman, who was born in Huntington, Indiana, in 1892 and earned a reputation as “America’s first cryptanalyst.” The university is collaborating with the City of Huntington, Friedman’s biographer, and others to celebration the installation of a state historic marker in Huntington in August of 2021.
“It’s so important to tell the stories of female pioneers in all areas of technology and engineering,” said Laurie Burns McRobbie, IU’s First Lady who first envisioned the upcoming CEW&T project. “Knowing that so many women, including women of color, were instrumental in creating the technologies and capabilities we have now contributes to how strongly today’s women feel that they belong in these fields. I’m so pleased to see that Kath Kennelly is one of these, and I congratulate her on her pioneering achievement!”