As a high school senior, Grayson Roper envisioned his future as a dentist, but after touring Montreat College on a whim, he suddenly found himself chewing on a new career idea in cybersecurity.
Roper grew up “just down the mountain from Montreat” in Morganton, North Carolina, less than an hour’s drive east on I-40. Although he was set on attending a different school for dentistry, he tagged along with a friend who convinced him to attend a Discovery Day at Montreat College through the allures of a pretty campus and a strong academic foundation built on faith.
“So, I went all the way to Montreat in my backyard, and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I just didn’t really know what I was going to do because they didn’t have a dentistry program.”
While his friend who convinced him to attend Discovery Day ultimately chose NC State for college, Montreat stayed on Roper’s mind. On his campus tour, the one thing that impressed him most was seeing Montreat’s cyber lab. After talking with the tour guide before he left and doing some additional research, Roper changed his mind, trading in his future for bites in dentistry for computer bytes as a cybersecurity major at Montreat College.
“You could say that I chose the school and then the major, which is kind of backward,” he said. “I would say Montreat being faith-based really was what drew me to cybersecurity because I wouldn’t have chosen cybersecurity if it wasn’t for Montreat.”
Before graduating from Montreat College in December 2022, Roper already had a job lined up with Ally Financial, benefiting from an internship he had over the previous summer. Since January, he has worked as a cyber threat intelligence analyst for Ally.
“As a cyber threat intelligence analyst, I look on the web, whether that’s the dark web or the regular web, for any threats or vulnerabilities or any groups hacking organizations that could be targeting our company,” he explained. “Then they report that to our security operations center, and they take the appropriate measures to ensure that we’re not going to be affected by whatever a threat may be.”
Despite being a first-year employee straight out of college, Roper has already played an important role in his company’s domain protection efforts, looking daily on the internet for impersonation websites trying to illegally harvest credential information and steal money from customers.
“We use multiple sources now to find these sites, and we’re detecting a lot more now than we were, so it’s really cool to be a part of that,” he said.
Roper credits Montreat College and his professors for providing him with a well-rounded education that increased his knowledge across all areas of cybersecurity.
“I always recommend Montreat because it’s one of the most advanced security programs and Montreat prepared me in the sense that I had some really good leaders as professors, Professor Sayadian being one of them,” he said. “He has really just been a catalyst to my learning and definitely my technical abilities.”
Roper said another way his Montreat education has set him apart was being able to graduate with his CompTIA Security+ certification.
“I learned tons of information that most people within 20 years of working in the cybersecurity industry wouldn’t even know,” he shared. “Not only did I have my bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, but I already had my Security+. I know people who have been in the industry for 20 years, and they still don’t have their Security+. Most people just study the textbook and take the test, but I was able to take an entire class on it.”
Beyond the actual content knowledge gained from his courses, Roper appreciated Montreat’s small class sizes and how eager the professors were to help. Roper recalled a story about how he once asked Professor Robby Webb, Jr. for assistance with a math problem, which led to an entire conversation over birthday pancakes at Denny’s in Black Mountain.
“Montreat was a world of difference between even high school and my college experience because you can just walk up to the professor and say, ‘Hey, I’m having trouble with this,’” he said.
While he was a student, Roper participated on the school’s clay target shooting team. He also served as captain of Montreat’s Cyber Defense Competition team. For aspiring cybersecurity professionals, competitions are a challenging and fun way to apply concepts learned in class, gain hands-on experience, and hone their skills. Roper’s personal favorite competition was the Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (SECCDC), a live-fire scenario, where competitors defend their network against hackers.
“Pen testers (penetration testers) are trying to breach your computer, get into your system, and just give you a really bad day,” he said. “That was honestly my favorite competition because for the day, you’re actually a cybersecurity analyst, and you’re defending your company. They always use the newest exploits, so you don’t know what’s coming.”
In the ever-evolving field of cybersecurity, Grayson Roper plans to pursue an MBA and become a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), which requires five years of experience to be eligible for full certification. While his future involves filling security gaps instead of cavities, Roper is grateful for the faith-based educational foundation he received at Montreat College.
“Montreat has opened so many doors for me,” he said, “and it’s amazing to be a part of such a tight-knit community.”