Guatemalan | 4’9” | Female | US Army Sergeant | Cyber Forensics Student | Badass

ITSPmagazine was introduced to Cinthya Grajeda-Mendez in our An InfoSec Life article by Larry Jaffee called Military Trained, InfoSec Approved. I was so taken by the accomplishments of this petite woman from Guatemala that I had to reach out to her and get her full story. Here it is!

Selena Templeton, Equal Respect Column Editor

From GuatEmala to the Military to Cybersecurity & Forensics

By Cinthya Grajeda-Mendez

As a female born in another country and brought to the United States at the age of 12 by a single mother of four children, I never imagined I could be part of something bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before.

I was born in Guatemala. Growing up there was really tough, especially because I grew up without my parents for most of my childhood life. My father died when I was only six months old due to his alcoholic tendencies and my mother ended up alone with no help from anyone to support us, not even his own family. She wanted to give us a better future so she had to sacrifice. She migrated to the United States while leaving us back in Guatemala and for most of that time we lived with different family members that included aunts and grandparents. Thus, I never really had a stable childhood. Sometimes we had to fend for ourselves and go a few days without food. My mother tried to do her best while living in the U.S. by working three jobs in order to support us back in Guatemala.

I’ve never thought I was good enough for the military, especially because I was the “weaker” sex, and being a small woman did not help either. However, one day during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I was approached by an army recruiter who thought I would be good for the military. That day I felt really special because I was offered a chance to be part of something bigger than myself. I saw a chance to make myself useful in a field that not too many people, let alone women, were part of.

The day I was approached, I was actually between classes doing homework in one of the halls at Norwalk Community College. The recruiter saw me sitting on the couch while he was walking by and came over to me. He started talking to me about my career and how I would be good for the military, especially because I had more education than a high school diploma. He told me about the opportunities the army offered and how joining would help me in the future with the skills I would gain.

While he was telling me all these good things about the military I could not help but to think, “Why me?” He asked me if I’d ever considered the military, and I said yes it has always interested me to an extent, but I knew that being a female and with my size that I would probably not get accepted, let alone make it past boot camp. He assured me that I was in perfect shape and that I should consider his offer. So I dropped out of community college and joined the army.

I had been studying IT/Information Systems, and was only one or two more credits away from graduating with an associate’s degree. I think my interest for computers grew in my last year of middle school when I was given the opportunity to attend a technology community program. This program was about providing students with the knowledge, parts and tools to build their own computer.

My English language skills were not so fluent, so I had to struggle a little bit to understand and attempt to put a computer together. Regardless, I did build a computer with the given parts!

It was a very cool and one-of-a-kind experience, and at the end of the program we got to keep the computers we had built! Since then, my interest for computers became stronger and that influenced me to acquire a degree in the field. Some people called me crazy for dropping out of college and joining the military in a time of war, but the fact that I’ve always admired the men and women in uniform and the need for me to serve and help others less fortunate than me, was more than enough reason to join.

Boot camp was one of the hardest, most stressful, and craziest things I’ve ever experienced mentally and physically in my life. I knew my life in boot camp would only be as good as I could make it, and most of it depended on my physical and mental state. My recruiter encouraged me and helped me get physically ready by doing training before leaving for boot camp, because I had to pass the physical training test in order to get in. I knew because of my stature that the physical challenges were going to be very tough on me, so that encouraged me to prove to myself and others that just because I was a small female didn’t mean I couldn’t perform as good or even better than my female or male counterparts.

At the end of basic training, I got the best score in the whole class on the female’s and male’s scale. Thus, the shortest female in basic training ended up receiving the physical training award for the whole brigade. It was one of my greatest accomplishments.

However, this accomplishment did cost me because I ended up with a stress fracture on my pelvic bone that has never completely healed. The doctor said that it was because of the extensive training I had and all the weight my body had to carry for so long during exercises. So, after boot camp all soldiers are required to attend Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for the jobs they will perform in the military. I arrived at AIT with a stress fracture that impeded me from doing PT for most of the time there. But at the end when it was time to take the final PT test, I again ended up earning the best score in my company. Yes, bootcamp was brutal and it broke me physically and mentally, but at the end the personal rewards were worth it.

After graduating AIT, I was stationed in Colorado. Even before arriving there, I’d already known I was going to go to war because you are reminded of that every single day in training. However, the concept of going to war did not seem real to me, it had not hit me yet until I got to reception (this is where you prepare before they send you to your unit). I remember being fresh out of AIT and being told that the unit I was assigned to was going to deploy for Iraq very soon. That is when it hit me and alone in a corner I just cried. Not until then did I realize that my life could soon be jeopardized by the decisions I’d made and if something happened to me it would be very devastating to my mother. But I got myself together and realized that life was not over and I had to remain stronger than ever because not only my family needed me to stay alive but also my country. This time my country came first.

Consequently, I deployed with the same unit twice back-to-back. The first time I was deployed for 15 months and the second only for 12. In my deployments, besides offering logistical support to the maintenance platoons, I also had to do other jobs that included guard duty of the premises. Even though I was under imminent danger, I was also exposed to see the suffering of the war in the eyes of the women and children who had lost everything because of the war. A suffering that I could not avoid seeing, but that at the same time made me humbler and made me see one of the reasons why I had joined to fight for this cause. In a way, I understood the pain those people had to endure. I no longer saw everyone as a threat, but as human beings. To this day, I can still see those faces in my mind. My deployments were rough and sometimes I did feel like I was not going to come back alive, but my faith in God never faded and with support from my family and my peers, I didn’t give up.

I acquired the rank of sergeant on my second deployment in Iraq. To become a sergeant, there are a few things that you have to accomplish. For example, in order to get promoted you have to have a certain amount of points. You get these points by taking army courses, college, PT, marksmanship, and passing the board. I had to be recommended first by my supervisor to attend the board (all members of the board are first sergeants and a SGT Major). Unfortunately, the first time I attended the board I didn’t pass it but the second time when I was more ready I did. To be honest, being in front of the board was one of the most anxious/nervous times I’ve ever experienced.

After getting out of the army, I decided to continue my career in the field of technology and computer science.

To my surprise, the IT field was (and still is) very male dominant, even more so than the military.

I’m not sure about statistics, but I could see the difference based on my own experience. While I saw many women serve in the military and expand their careers, my experience in the IT field is not even close. Once again I found myself being the minority, to the point of sometimes having just one or two other female classmates in some classes.

Image Source: ITSPmagazine Article " Military Trained. InfoSec Approved. "

Image Source: ITSPmagazine Article "Military Trained. InfoSec Approved."

I am now a full-time student, and in my spare time I have an internship at UNH’s Cyber Forensics Research & Education (Cfreg) Lab where I’m currently working on a study about the availability of datasets in cyber forensics and security. This research has taken months to complete, but this month it will be submitted to IEEE Security & Privacy journal where we hope it gets published.

I am the first and only female to ever join the UNH Cyber Forensics Research & Education Lab.

While I feel honored to be a female in these male dominant fields, I also feel disappointed to see so little representation of our gender. The fact is that it is very hard for us women to excel in these types of fields just for the fact of being a woman. Even now in 2016, we can see how the stereotypes and prejudices shadow the reality of what women are capable of doing. Being part of male dominant fields means as a woman sometimes you have to work much harder to prove yourself. Sometimes when you try to speak up about something or try to improve or recommend something, they question your integrity and reliability to the point of making it seem like it’s bad to even have opinions. Seems like people want constant proof. Sometimes it feels like it’s them against you.

Nonetheless, there are men who do help you succeed, and I’m very fortunate to know some of them. Some of these men are my friends, peers and professors. Furthermore, because they also have mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who they want to see being treated fairly by men and have the same opportunities they have been given. I have experienced this in the military and civilian world.

I think there are a lot of great men out there who only want to see you succeed, not only because they care about you but because your success is theirs as well.

Sometimes women are afraid to come out and speak up on their own, sometimes women hinder their own progress by remaining in the shadows thinking their own experience is not good enough. Nonetheless, if more opportunities were given to females as they’re given to their male counterparts, I believe more women would become aware of and take advantage of the opportunities and excel in these fields. Sometimes it takes a good man to open your eyes a little and show you what you could be capable of doing, as it happened with me when I joined the army and now in the cyber forensics field.

I’ve always tried to excel no matter what the situation was and now with the help of my family, friends, professors and peers, I will be the first one in my family to be graduating from a university with a bachelor’s degree. To all those women out there who might want to join these types of fields but doubt themselves that they could excel at them as I have, I hope you realize that no matter what the situation, if you want it bad enough and work as hard as you can for it, you can make it!

About Cinthya Grajeda-Mendez

Cinthya Grajeda-Mendez is an undergraduate in Cyber Systems at University of New Haven’s Cyber Forensics Research & Education Group / Lab (UNHcFREG). She spent eight years in the U.S. military and was deployed to Iraq twice, making the rank of sergeant on the second deployment.

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