Rita Mitra: Inspiring a Lifelong Appreciation of Learning
Rita Mitra is what you might call a professional learner. Now in her fourth career, the associate professor in practice of cyber security credits her tenacity, optimism, and humility for creating opportunities that have allowed her to pursue her goals at UTSA of strengthening community, encouraging diversity, and inspiring in others a lifelong appreciation of learning.
A classically trained pianist and violinist, Mitra’s propensity for hard work carried her through a master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music and a doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music. After starting a family and injuring her shoulder, Mitra decided to shift gears and pursue a career in computer science, earning her M.S. in Computer Science from New York University.
In 2018, Mitra was hired by the UTSA College of Business (COB) to be part of a small team charged with completing the development of UTSA’s first fully online degree program — the online BBA in Cyber Security. The project was initially funded and managed through UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, where she had served as learning architect. When the institute was dissolved before the program was fully launched, Kevin Grant, associate dean of undergraduate studies, recruited her to UTSA to finish the work.
Mitra, Grant and their team had little infrastructure to rely on when determining how to move forward with the program, which had already launched a pilot in the summer of 2017. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances, Mitra’s passion for curriculum development compelled her to find hidden opportunities to refresh a degree program traditionally geared toward hands-on labs, and cutting-edge tools and technologies.
“Through Rita’s efforts, the online BBA in Cyber Security has evolved from crisis to unmitigated success story,” says Kevin Grant, associate dean of undergraduate success. “It is almost unimaginable that the COB would have realized this degree of success but for the tireless service of Dr. Rita Mitra.”
Creating the online degree program offered a chance for the COB team of faculty and administrators to revamp the labs in the cybersecurity program. Rather than using a residential cybersecurity lab, students in the online program install and configure virtual machines on their own computers so they can access preconfigured cloud-based labs through a cloud provider. Students in the online program also have access to a premier cyber training range called Simspace, where students tap into a simulated network of computers to practice security-related techniques in a realistic environment.
The COB team collaborated with Academic Innovation’s Office of Digital Learning to develop high quality online courses based on Universal Design for Learning guidelines. Today, almost 300 students are enrolled in the top-ranking fully online BBA in Cyber Security degree program, and in May the program will celebrate its third graduating class.
The work of launching an online degree program provided invaluable insights when UTSA transitioned to remote learning in March 2020. As director of online programs in the College of Business, Mitra was tapped to serve as her college’s point of contact for the Online Teaching Faculty Champions program, a network of faculty peer mentors from across the institution who are committed to support their fellow faculty with online teaching guidance.
These experiences have helped Mitra appreciate the possibilities that can arise from a collective community—whether in person or virtual, and not only within the college, but across campus. With that mindset, Mitra chose to get involved in the Faculty Peer Mentoring Program spearheaded by Academic Affairs. She both participated in and led a peer mentoring team over the 2020 summer and fall sessions and is on a team this spring. Her best advice to her fellow faculty? Communicate with your students.
“We're all in a historic, unprecedented, and unpredictable time. The key is to stay in contact with your students and to forgive them and yourself," says Mitra. "Don't expect something of yourself that is too much at the moment and take the same approach with your students. Just communicate and respond promptly, even if you don't know the answer right away.”
In fact, Mitra has learned over the years that when we don’t put as much pressure on ourselves to do a task perfectly, we can open up to learn even more and approach a topic in the way that makes the most sense to each of us. This philosophy of foregoing “perfection” to open oneself up to true learning is what enabled Mitra to change careers so successfully.
Much like a musician must remain disciplined and evolve with their practice, so too must a programmer remain disciplined, flexible, and agile in learning new languages, tools, and techniques. Both industries also reward perseverance, which Mitra feels is particularly important when approaching the ever-changing field of cybersecurity.
In an industry historically dominated by men, Mitra is encouraged by seeing so many diverse students in the online BBA in Cyber Security program, many of whom are first-generation college students and/or career changers. She is certain that diversity within the field will help lead innovation to exciting frontiers.
In her Unlocking Cyber course, students range from those who have built computers and started hacking at an early age to those who are completely new to the subject. Mitra provides multiple pathways for her students to succeed, getting the newcomers up to speed on the basics while allowing those who have experience to begin developing their own niche interests.
The ebb and flow of the cyber world requires constant learning, which is why Mitra encourages her students to be confident that they will be able to pick up the skills just as she continues to do. Her tireless dedication to both her students and the university has earned her the President’s Distinguished Achievement Award for University Service. Mitra’s ability to see the opportunities in challenges and strike a balance between process and product makes her an invaluable and insightful professor.
“If there's one thing that I like to emphasize to students who feel that they are atypical for the field, is that it's not how much they know, but how much effort and how much passion they put into the process of learning itself that will define their success and their passions," says Mitra.
UTSA’s cyber security programs have been ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the program has been named a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. For more information about this program, visit the cyber security online degree website.
For departments or colleges that want to develop an online degree program, UTSA offers a defined process and support structure.
Rita Mitra teaches the following courses:
- IS 1003 Unlocking Cyber
- IS 2043 Intermediate Object-Oriented Pgm
- IS 3033 Operating Systems Security
Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.