John “Vinnie” Monaco is decidedly low-key in his demeanor, notwithstanding his nose ring, ear studs and six tattoos and his apparent genius with computers.
The bespectacled 23-year-old, a senior at Pace University, is on a path to take on the nation’s information security challenges.
Monaco is one of 20 students in the country to receive a full scholarship from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Information Assurance Scholarship Program this year.
Designed to encourage students to pursue a variety of information assurance-related disciplines — which includes protecting data and computer systems from being attacked or broken into — the scholarship covers tuition and books and provides a stipend.
Monaco, who is pursuing bachelor’s degrees in both computer science and mathematics, will also be offered internships during school breaks and full-time employment with the Defense Department after graduation.
“I had heard while applying for the scholarship that the work they do is very research-oriented,” said Monaco. “And that is one of my major interests.”
A 2006 Somers High School graduate, Monaco spent two years working as an electrician before heading to Pace.
He credits the time away from academia as well spent.
“I was burnt out from high school, and wanted to get into the real world,” said Monaco. “It definitely helped. It helps to mature you.”
When Monaco joined Pace in the spring of 2008, he impressed his computer science professor immediately.
Veteran professor Allen Stix describes Monaco as something extraordinary.
“To state that John Vincent Monaco is the best student I have known since I started teaching computer science at Pace University over 25 years ago is accurate but does him an injustice,” wrote Stix in a letter of recommendation for the award. “Vinnie is in a league of his own.”
Stix goes on to describe him as “brilliant” with a “congenial demeanor.”
One of Monaco’s college projects involved updating a simulation game for teaching business strategy into a Web-based format for a class at Pace’s Lubin School of Business.
His professors say he can code almost anything in a computer language.
That knack manifested itself early on.
“When he was a kindergartner, he built a robot and won a competition,” recalled his mother, Amy Monaco.
“In high school, he built a truck from scratch and it actually worked.”
Monaco plans to continue at Pace for a master’s in computer science, with the goal of pursuing a doctorate and a career in artificial intelligence.
“I like the problem-solving aspect of it, knowing what questions to ask,” said Monaco, “and posing the right solutions to those questions.”
Amy Monaco credited Vinnie’s father, Jeff Monaco, a printer who “can fix anything that’s broken,” and her own father, who worked as a computer programer at IBM for 30 years, as perhaps being behind her son’s singular talents.
“Between my father, who was great with numbers, and Vinnie’s father,” said Amy Monaco, “he’s got an incredible gift.”
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