From internship to industry: How two computer science students discovered their passion for cybersecurity

Bonna Mesfin and Shertal St Luce didn’t know what the future held for their career, until landing their dream internship at QSMI.

Students participating in the Internship & Career Fair

The VCU College of Engineering’s career services department aided two computer science students in their search for internships, landing them both in the dynamic world of cybersecurity at Quality Systems Management, Inc. (QSMI). Both students, Bonna Mesfin and Shertal St Luce, gained real-world experience, tackled unlikely challenges and made industry connections all before graduating.

Quality Systems Management, Inc. is a woman-owned small business headquartered in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, offering professional services and solutions to a variety of customers, including the Department of Defense, federal agencies, state and local governments, and private companies. The company’s focus includes subject matter expertise in intelligence analysis, science and technology, budget and finance, health IT, and program management office support.

A computer science major, Mesfin initially rejected the internship offer. He was working two other jobs at the time and didn’t have capacity to add an internship to the mix; however, QSMI’s Chief Ooperating Officer Carrington Thomson reached out, insisting he reconsider and expressing excitement at what Mesfin would bring to the table.

This level of investment from upper management impressed Mesfin and convinced him to give it a shot, accepting the position and joining in June 2023.

Under the mentorship of both Thomson and John Kokernak, QSMI's IT team manager, Mesfin made significant contributions to the company’s compliance efforts within the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) framework. The main project he worked on involved implementing a company-wide, two-factor authentication for employee Gmail accounts, a vital step in ensuring CMMC compliance.

“I've established solid connections with everyone on my team,” Mesfin said. “Both John Kokernak and Carrington Thomson have been great bosses and incredibly influential to my learning throughout this internship. Shertal’s support has been no less important. Having another VCU student to help me learn the ropes of working in the industry has been invaluable.”

Shertal St Luce began interning with QSMI the year before Mesfin joined. The transition from academic studies to industry work was seamless for St Luce, crediting her comprehensive engineering coursework and VCU Engineering’s Department of Career Services.

Implementing the skills she learned in Python, Java, and cybersecurity classes, St Luce successfully navigated and solved challenges that were instrumental in fortifying QSMI’s cybersecurity defenses.

She developed a robust expertise in OpenVAS, an open-source vulnerability scanner, identifying and mitigating security vulnerabilities within QSMI’s network and assuring compliance with the CMMC framework.

“This opportunity was not merely an introduction to the cybersecurity field; it was a transformative experience that cemented my passion for cybersecurity and equipped me with the foundational knowledge essential for my career in cyber and IT,” St Luce said.

Along with these skills, St Luce honed her expertise in policy and procedure writing, a vital ability for documenting cybersecurity practices and ensuring they are understood and followed within the organization. From researching emerging cybersecurity vulnerabilities to monitoring security scans and providing technical IT support, this multifaceted role provided St Luce with a breadth of knowledge across cybersecurity principles.

“Reflecting on this journey, it is clear that my tenure at QSMI was pivotal in shaping my career path,” St Luce said. “I now work as a full-time security engineer at CoStar, and this hands-on experience, coupled with the support and insights from seasoned professionals, provided a solid foundation that has continued to propel me forward in my career.”

Mesfin and St Luce credit the collaborative culture, industry expertise and hands-on learning they received at QSMI for shaping their career trajectory, as well as the dedication of the VCU Engineering career services team for helping land this influential opportunity. 

Although Mesfin hadn’t considered cybersecurity as a career path before, the experience he gained at QSMI opened his mind to the possibility.

“Every job I’ve taken in my professional career has come from keeping my eyes open for rare opportunities like these,” Mesfin said. “The engineering career services department was amazing at helping me improve my resume to be more competitive for positions like this.”

The Department of Computer Science provides undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to perform real-world research as soon as they enroll. From designing algorithms to solving complex computing problems to working with cutting-edge AI technology, students gain understanding of many important computing topics. Browse videos and recent news from the Department of Computer Science to discover how the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University prepares the next generation of scientists and engineers for the challenges of the future.