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Dr. Jim Burkman stands next to Sydney Mason, who is seated in front of a desktop computer.

School Dad: MSIS student Sydney Mason credits Dr. Jim Burkman with assisting her journey

Friday, June 21, 2024

Media Contact: Terry Tush | Director, Marketing and Communications | 405-744-2703 | terry.tush@okstate.edu

Sydney Mason knew exactly what she was looking for when she walked into the Business Building basement in August 2019.

The freshman was seeking a place to connect, engage and create lasting friendships with other Oklahoma State University students while pursuing a degree in management information systems (MIS).

The 18-year-old from Oklahoma City knew what to expect when she arrived in Stillwater, but she wasn’t prepared for what happened over the next five years. She didn’t realize how much her life would change when she walked into the ISAC (Information Security and Assurance Club) meeting her second week on campus.

Mason, like most students in the 21st century, grew up using computers and smartphones. She also assisted with the technological needs at her parents’ veterinary clinic.

“I knew I wanted to do something with technology,” she said. “And I kind of had to fiddle around and figure out exactly what I wanted to do.”

Mason walked into that ISAC meeting knowing only a few people but walked out as the student organization’s treasurer. More importantly, she was introduced to Dr. Jim Burkman, ISAC advisor and professor of professional practice in the management science and information systems department (MSIS).

Mason eventually spent three years as president of the club (it would have been four, but she spent this past year as a liaison while in graduate school), growing the organization to its highest number of members since it was founded 15 years ago. She became the club’s first female president and spent two years as Burkman’s teaching assistant and another year as his graduate assistant.

She recently completed her fifth year in the MIS program, earning a bachelor’s degree in MIS with an emphasis on information assurance in 2023 and then her master’s degree in MIS, concentrating on cybersecurity, this past spring as part of the 4+1 program. It didn’t take her long after arriving on campus to realize that cybersecurity was where she wanted to focus.

“I knew security always interested me the most. Then as I started getting more into the MIS classes, I took Dr. Burkman’s database development class,” she said. “That was the first class that something really clicked with me. I realized that this is a really cool major, and I’m liking this a lot.

“I never thought I would be so involved with an academic degree department or even a student club as much as I was, but when I see something and I set my mind to it, I go all in. And that’s what I did with ISAC, and in turn that has translated to also being involved in the MSIS department ... It’s definitely this little hidden gem amongst everything at Oklahoma State.”

Dr. Jim Mason and Sydney Burkman smiling
Sydney Mason served as OSU's Information Security and Assurance Club (ISAC) president for three years, and Dr. Jim Burkman offered constant support.

Not only was Mason heavily involved in setting the direction for the ISAC while serving as president, but she also maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA throughout her five years at OSU. She spent many hours traveling from Stillwater to Oklahoma City to assist her parents with their veterinary practice.

In the past year, while earning her master’s degree, she has been preparing for the next phase of life, which includes starting her career with Devon Energy this summer, building and moving into a new house outside of Oklahoma City in May, and prepping for an October wedding.

The job with Devon Energy was offered after Mason spent the past two summers as an intern in the Digital Security department. Burkman’s presence throughout her college career was never more evident than when she faced a tough decision after her junior year.

“I am so incredibly grateful for him and everything he’s been able to do and guide me on,” she said. “He’s been what my family calls my school dad. He’s been my school dad since day one.

“He was the one I went to when I got my first internship offer from Devon. At that time, I had another security internship offer. I said to him, ‘I have these two options. I don’t know what to do.’

“So, he looked over the letter with me and said, ‘Take the Devon offer. You’re not going to regret this.’ And he was dead right because it led to another internship and then the job offer.

“Just to have that direction and someone looking out for you and guiding you through this part of life is ... I can’t even put into words what he means to me.”

But it’s a two-way street. While she’s quick to praise Burkman for his guidance over the years, the longtime Spears School of Business professor also thinks highly of Mason. He said he will miss her when the ISAC reconvenes in the fall.

“At the time she joined the club, I was coming off a multi-year run of very, very technical students in the club,” he said. “I asked her to devise a strategy that would help pull in all the students and she remade the club to be a lot more inclusive, while still having an area and an availability for the real technical students. But all of a sudden, our club starts off the year with probably 80 to 90 students.

“We have a lot of good students here, so I won’t say she’s the only one by any means, but if I could clone her I would. She’s had, all by herself, such a positive impact on the students around her, which is probably one of the biggest things that sets her apart. She doesn’t just play nice with others, she brings people up, she lifts them with her, which is just astounding.”

In October, Mason was asked to speak at the opening of the Williams Cyber, Analytics, and Systems Lab. She was struggling with her speech until she was reminded who had made the biggest impact in her life over the past five years.

“As I was talking through those ideas, my mom said, ‘Well, you know, the underlying connection between all those is Dr. Burkman, right?’ So, I gave a speech about how he was just the best professor with understanding students and wanting them to be successful in learning," Mason said.

“I’ve had many mentorships over the years, many teachers that I’ve connected with and have helped guide me with my path to life, but the mentorship I’ve gotten from him is unlike anything I’ve had before.

“A lot of times mentorships can be difficult, because students give so much and some mentors unintentionally take advantage of that, or they just don’t see it, or they don’t recognize it. My relationship with Dr. Burkman has never been anything but a two-way street.”

Burkman doesn’t hold back when talking about Mason’s future.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s a CIO one day. She’s fully engaged in whatever she does. She’s an independent thinker. She’s willing to go find answers on her own. She is always level-headed and has a good temperament. She is just a joy. She’s very mature for her age, or her emotional maturity is just high,” he said.

“I mean, from my viewpoint, she’s probably one of the most dependable students I’ve ever relied on. I never have to check to see if Sydney does something right or does something I asked for. In fact, she’s way more likely to reach out to me and be like, ‘Jim, here’s the thing that needs corrected,’ which is wonderful. She’s just going to be an absolute superstar.”


Story by: Terry Tush | Engage@Spears magazine
Photos by: Devin Flores

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