Steven Barnett considers computer science an exciting puzzle in logic. That’s why he has started on a path to make it his career.

This fall, Barnett joined the inaugural group of 26 graduate students enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering in computer science program, the first degree designed specifically for the university’s new Innovation Campus. 

Barnett, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in 2015, also is one of 23 students who qualified for a scholarship to help fund the first semester and subsequent semesters of his program. Virginia Tech is offering scholarships ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 per semester for up to 200 Virginia residents who are pursuing computer science and computer engineering programs full time and will complete them between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2022.

The scholarships are an incentive for students to enroll, plus they will help the university meet its commitment to the commonwealth to produce more computer science and computer engineering graduates as part of the part of the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program, created as part of Virginia’s proposal to Amazon. The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria, also part of the package, has been widely credited with helping the state win Amazon’s HQ2 in Northern Virginia.

Barnett said he’s ready to join the tech talent workforce. As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, he majored in communication and minored in computer science. Though he landed his first jobs in communication, he always wanted to explore computer science as a profession. Now, working full time as a public relations specialist for ASIS International in Alexandria, Barnett is surrounded by cybersecurity professionals, and he wants to join them.

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When Virginia Tech announced in November 2018 its plans for the Innovation Campus, Barnett, who is the eighth person in his family to attend Virginia Tech, said he saw it as the perfect opportunity to pursue his passion.

The program’s focus on helping graduates find jobs in the computer science field, rather than on theoretical research, was a strong draw for him.

“It’s an honor to be part of the original cohort of this new program,” said Barnett, who will join Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus, for a virtual Tech on Tap panel on Sept. 23 to discuss his perspectives on the new graduate degree.

Barnett expects to complete his master’s degree by December 2021, so he won’t be able to take classes in the physical Innovation Campus space. However, the campus’ design is moving forward and it is planned for a 2024 opening in Alexandria.

Currently, all of Barnett’s classes are online because of COVID-19. Over time, as more in-person activities are allowed, these courses will be offered at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church until the Innovation Campus opens.

Once Barnett completes the program, he said he is confident that he will find a computer science job, perhaps focused in cybersecurity. When he first began working at ASIS International, he heard an interview with members of the organization stating that the industry would need about 2 million people to fill cybersecurity jobs by 2025.

“Just knowing that there is that opportunity, that is a compelling reason to go after it,” Barnett said.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone