While working as a waitress Monday night, Columbia Basin College student Alicia DeLay, 47, was asked by a female customer to tell her story.
DeLay told the woman about how she'd raised three kids but was looking to start a new career in cybersecurity. She will graduate with a bachelor's degree in a year, despite taking several years off to go through a divorce, sell her home and work two jobs.
But she was nervous, because she was going to have to make a speech Tuesday when she accepted a $2,500 scholarship that will help pay for the rest of her education.
After the customer left, DeLay went to collect the bill.
"She wrote on the check, beside a $100 tip, 'pursuing your dreams and facing your fears is the epitome of strength,' " DeLay said Tuesday as she accepted the J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Scholarship.
That scholarship, paid for by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, is one of only nine awarded each year across the country.
CBC's bachelor's degree program in cybersecurity is only completing its first year, but the scholarship's backers and college officials said DeLay demonstrates the promise it holds.
"She's very diligent and very deserving of this award," said D.C. Grant, assistant professor of computer science and cybersecurity program director.
CBC President Rich Cummins and retired FBI agent Jack Slicks, who moved to the Tri-Cities in the late 1990s to work at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, had spoken for months about getting more support for the cybersecurity program.
The college already has a similar two-year program that grants an associate degree but received permission last year from the state to expand it so graduates can earn a bachelor of applied science degree. Cummins described the track as a combination of information technology and criminal justice.
DeLay always loved the law and wanted to find a career where she could give back, she said.
"When my kids were introduced to computers, I recognized not only were they tools but weapons," she told the Herald.
Unfortunately, cybersecurity programs didn't exist on the West Coast at the time, DeLay said. That's partially a result of cybersecurity being a relatively new field in law enforcement, officials said.
"When I left the FBI, there were no cybersecurity teams," Slicks told the Herald. "There was very little being done."
Now, data breaches and cyberespionage are everyday topics. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday charges against five Chinese military officials who allegedly hacked into U.S. corporations.
"It's very important we know how to handle those threats," Slicks said, adding this is the first time the society has awarded the scholarship to a cybersecurity program.
DeLay pursued paralegal and computer science associate degrees at the suggestion of a mentor. She earned her paralegal associate degree several years ago and returned to CBC in January 2013 when she learned of the new bachelor's degree in cybersecurity the college was going to offer that fall.
College officials said DeLay is a leader among the bachelor's program's nine other students, while scholarship backers said they were impressed by her dedication and intensity.
DeLay choked up a bit while giving her speech Tuesday, but made it through to applause. She isn't done challenging herself yet, though -- she has a summer internship lined up that will force her to address her weaknesses.
"I had no clear direction, I just knew where I wanted to arrive," DeLay said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald