Christine Hillsgrove’s “Transformational” Experience at UMGC Includes Earning Three Degrees

Christine Hillsgrove has always been fascinated by the inner workings of NASA and it was her dream to work for one of the space agency’s centers. 

Fast forward to 2015.  Hillsgrove has landed her dream job in cybersecurity at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL is a research and development lab that is managed by the California Institute of Technology—Caltech—and receives federal funds from NASA. 

“In fact, when I drove across the country to move to California, I planned my route to hit as many NASA centers as possible to visit,” Hillsgrove said. 

Today Hillsgrove still works for JPL, leading the team focused on cyber threats and intelligence. She is advancing her career with a Master of Science in Transformational Leadership, her third degree from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). She also received a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management in 2007 and a Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation in 2015. 

“I can definitely say that what I’ve learned from my master’s is tremendously helping me in my current role,” said Hillsgrove. “The transformational leadership instills how to be more people-oriented and how to consider those people’s aspects when it comes to leadership.” 

She added that the management skills that come with her degree, including budget and marketing know-how, are “helping me lead my team and to promote my team within my organization so that we can all be successful together.” 

Hillsgrove’s professor from a 2015 cybersecurity course described her as unforgettable and an excellent student. 

“Chris was not only impressive, given her leadership skills and willingness to serve our nation, but her zeal to learn extends far beyond the coursework,” said Michael Ball, adjunct associate professor of cloud computing and computer networking. “She and I had multiple dialogues concerning the work of my then-employer, the NASA Office of Inspector General/Cyber Crimes Division, and she expressed genuine interest in the work in the digital forensics field. She is a leader who will continue to grow and shine.” 

Hillsgrove’s decision to return to school was indirectly linked to her service in the National Guard. Even when Hillsgrove relocated to California, she flew to Maryland monthly to assist her National Guard unit and play the clarinet in the 29th Army Band of the Maryland National Guard. On a 2020 trip during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hillsgrove got stuck in Maryland. The National Guard found out and asked her to come to the office and help its IT department. Years before, Hillsgrove had worked full-time for the Guard as an IT technician from 2010-2014.  

While aiding the National Guard, Hillsgrove started thinking about expanding her professional skills further and started looking through graduate programs at UMGC. 

“I was getting ready to retire from the military after 22 years of service. I had just gotten promoted into a new leadership position at JPL, and so when I was looking at the curriculum for transformational leadership, I realized that it more aligned with what I wanted to learn,” Hillsgrove said. 

In fall 2020, Hillsgrove embarked on her second master’s degree.   

“JPL has this great tuition reimbursement program and I wanted to take advantage of it even though I already have a master’s degree. Plus, there is so much more I can learn by pursuing another degree,” Hillsgrove said. “I’m really grateful for UMGC having the programs that they do and recognizing that their students need flexibility, providing the online format so that we’re no longer bounded by geographic limitations.” 

Hillsgrove, who retired from the National Guard in November 2020, plans to apply all her new skills in leading JPL’s veteran employee resource group. She looks forward to supporting other veterans transitioning out of military service and struggling in their day-to-day lives. 

“I really appreciate that UMGC has a program specifically for military personnel because that transition from military to civilian life is incredibly difficult,” Hillsgrove said. “Without a university like UMGC, I would have never been able to finish one graduate degree, let alone two or even my bachelor’s.”