Editor’s Note – Just before I started working on Christine Izuakor’s interview, I had just returned from a one-hour walk that I almost did not go for because I kept telling myself I had other things to do. My greatest stuggle so far this year has been how to fit in everything I have to do in a day, and a good sleep into 24hours!
Christine Izuakor’s story has inspired me to pay more attention to how I plan my tasks and manage my time with discipline. I hope you find something inspiring from her amazing success story too.
Christine Izuakor is a Nigerian-American, who completed her PhD at the University of Colorado in December at the age of 27, thereby becoming the youngest person and the first African-American woman to do so at the university (27 years old).
In this interview with Sola Abe for woman.ng, Christine talks about her journey into Security Engineering.
About Christine Ogechukwu Izuakor
My name is Christine Ogechukwu Izuakor. I am an overly ambitious and driven individual, and I am dedicated to reaching my full potential. I also like to share my story and experiences with hopes of inspiring others to also reach their own full potential. It’s very important to me to be able to uplift those around me.
From childhood to adulthood, learning and growing has always been an integral part of my upbringing. In the 80’s both of my parents came to America from Nigeria to pursue higher education and growth opportunities. In our home, education was such a huge priority; so much so that I didn’t even know attending university was “optional” until I was graduating from high school and saw some people in my school choosing not to go. I am very thankful that my parents raised me in this way because it’s cultivated a true passion for continuous learning and made me the person I am today.
I continued my pursuit of higher education relentlessly and went on to complete my bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, all by age 27.. In 2012, I earned a M.S. in information systems security from University of Houston (3.98 out of 4 GPA) and went on to earn a Ph.D. in security engineering (3.9 out of 4 GPA) from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Last year, I was excited and honored to be published in several international journals, including The International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection, and presented in security conferences from Rome, Italy to Washington, D.C. I absolutely love the security industry and have a lot of fun with cyber security work and research.
For the last 6 years, I’ve also been working full-time on the information security team for a Fortune 100 company. In my latest role, I am responsible for managing numerous security functions from vulnerability management to contractual aspects of data security. I am also a co-founder and the Vice President of Gen Trend, United Airlines’ Millennial business resource group. In this role I, in collaboration with the leadership team, am responsible for delivering a strategy that shapes United to better attract and retain the next generation of employees and customers.
An advocate of diversity and inclusion, I also serve as the Head Editor of the Illinois Diversity Council Editorial Board, and I am a member of the National Diversity Council Newsletter Committee. Additionally, I am passionate about addressing the “opportunity divide” and volunteer as a mentor with Year Up to help connect minorities with opportunity. I love being able to give back in any way that I can.
As a first generation Nigerian in America, native Houstonian, Chicago resident, and avid traveler, I also love to travel and experience different cultures.
How she feels Being The First Black Woman To Complete A Phd In Security Engineering At The University Of Colorado
It feels very exciting! We all know about the shortage of women in both STEM and cyber security. I am just glad to not only have studied a topic that I am very passionate about, but to also act as an example for other women and minorities who don’t see this as a traditional career option.
The greatest skill that has helped her achieved this
I think time management has been a tremendous skill set that I’ve developed over the years. During my educational journey, I always worked full-time and engaged in many other charity and leisurely activities as well. I still maintained relationships and friends. I still made time for plenty of rest. Being able to make the most of every single minute has been extremely important. For example, I worked full-time the entire PhD journey and even took on a promotion with additional work responsibilities during the last year of the program. On weekdays, I would work my 8 hour day…come home and eat dinner, and then go straight to library or Starbucks to do school work for 3-5 hours, often times until they closed. This still left me with 8-10 hours to sleep and rest each day. Then, I always tried to keep my weekends open to travel, socialize, rest, and take care of everything else.
Why she chose security
I love security because it forces me to think critically and try to understand what a malicious attacker would do, in order for me to be able to actually strengthen security and combat attacks. I get to wear two hats: one where I think of everything that can go wrong and another one where I then try to make it right. That is fun to me.
I chose this area of study because when I started reading about security and doing small assignments on the topic, it did not feel like work. It was more like a fun hobby. That is how I knew it’s something I wanted to pursue at a graduate level.
How she feels being in a male dominated field
I am fortunate enough to work on a security team that is pretty diverse in comparison to other companies, though there are definitely more men. Right now my reporting structure up to the CIO is comprised solely of women, and I am able to learn a lot from them. I do think the industry in general needs more women for more diverse perspective, especially in security and risk management. I also think this will combat some of the unconscious bias women may experience on more male-dominated projects and initiatives.
The women who inspire her
I draw inspiration from many different people. One thing I like to do is look at people who have made it where I am trying to go already. I study their journeys, and draw inspiration from them. A few women that come to mind are my dear mom, my sisters, Sharon Grant, Michelle Obama, and OnikaMaraj. In unique ways, they each inspire me to want more from life, to continue to go harder, and to make sure that I am also helping to create opportunities for others in the process. I have learned that no one is perfect, but from each of these women I have drawn ample inspiration to create an ideal role model for myself.
the distractions she faced and how she handled them
As a Ph.D. student, I think people often expect us to abandon our social lives or the thought of having any fun during the program. I don’t agree with that at all. Life is too short not to enjoy every day. One example sticks out for me. I had an opportunity to go on a last minute trip to Paris one week, and I knew I had a very major assignment due soon when the opportunity surfaced. I think the average student may either abandon the assignment and fail or avoid the trip and focus on school. I did neither. I knew that the flight was 9 hours from Chicago, so I planned my time. I spent 5 hours during my flight completing the assignment, slept a few hours, and then organized the rest of my school work during my cab ride to my hotel. I took advantage of my time in every possible way that I could. I had still taken care of my responsibilities and had a blast in Paris!
As obstacles and distractions arise, I have learned to adjust and prioritize. I try to really see how much I can squeeze in so that I accommodate so call “distractions” when worth it. In any case, I always remind myself of the reason I started my journey, and keep my eyes on my destination.
Her advice for young women who have big dreams
I would say be curious, be competent, and manage your time wisely:
On being curious, I think questioning the way things have been done and the way people think, myself included, has enabled me to break barriers and do things I didn’t know were possible; even when I didn’t have another role model or example to go by. It’s given me the courage to challenge traditional limits and live by new and empowering standards. Instead of asking “why”, I am more compelled to ask “why not”.
On being competent, you have to know your stuff. Period. Especially in male dominated industries for me, it started out a little intimidating at times to not understand things that everyone else in the room understood. While I am not saying, you have to have all of the answers, I think it’s important to prepare as much as possible and also have the confidence to ask questions when there is anything you need clarification on.
I spoke on time management a little previously, but think this is a really important one, especially for women with children or dependents. Make the most of every minute, every day.
What she thinks are the essential skills for women who want to study up to a PHD level especially in Nigeria
I think a few essential skills are good time management, resilience, passion for your topic, and true dedication to finishing your program. There will be sacrifices; there may be tears and times when you feel your intelligence is insulted; and there will be breaking points that truly test your commitment. But, there will also be exciting breakthroughs, joyous celebratory moments, and a sense of relief and accomplishment when you reach the finish line. It feels awesome! I didn’t complete my program in Nigeria, so I can’t really speak to specifics there, but do think the skills above are relevant in any location.