Ground was broken for Lincoln College, a predominantly Black college in Illinois, US, on February 12, 1865, which happened to be then-president Abraham Lincoln’s last birthday. For generations, Lincoln College provided students of all backgrounds with the opportunity to reach their full potential and prepare for their future. The respectable college managed to weather some of the nation’s toughest challenges, such as the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and World War II. However, as the college tried to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, a ransomware attack crippled its systems in December 2021, forcing it to close its doors after 157 years of service.
The incident marked the college’s final milestone: becoming the first US higher education institution to close due in part to a cyberattack (COVID-19 was a contributing factor to the closure). To better understand the real-life impact of cyberattacks against academic facilities, we spoke with a Lincoln College student who experienced the repercussions of this ransomware attack firsthand. The interviewee will remain anonymous to protect her identity.
(Edited for brevity and clarity)
DPN: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
AJ: I am located in the big city of Chicago, Illinois. I was a junior year student at Lincoln College. The year before, I transferred from a university in Wisconsin.
Why did you transfer to Lincoln College?
I left the university because I could not be more involved on campus. I was on a sports team, which I loved a lot, but it was just so time-consuming I couldn’t do anything else. I’m not saying that I wasn’t given opportunities, but there was so much going on with that sport alone, joining other organizations within the college was too much for me to take on.
I decided to go to Lincoln because they offered me a lot of opportunities to be more open with myself and to feel comfortable in the environment. Me being the open person that I am, I like to get to know people from different areas and diverse backgrounds.
Once I transferred, I got very much involved with the campus. I was on a sports team. I was in the gospel choir. I joined multiple organizations. I was even part of the staff. All of these opportunities helped me determine who I am as a person and to become a better person.
When did you find out the college was hit by a ransomware attack?
I discovered that the attack happened during Christmas break. The school sent an email informing us they had to postpone our return to campus because they were dealing with a cyberattack. They were unable to operate the facilities to keep a productive learning environment on campus. It reminded me of my previous job since they faced the same thing.
Wait a minute… did your previous employer also experience a ransomware attack?
Yes. I remember the attacks happening around the same time. My previous job had to deal with a lot of customer orders and get them out by a certain time. We couldn’t do that without access to our system. My coworkers were texting in a group chat saying they weren’t able to do anything because of the cyberattack. They couldn’t complete a single order. To this day, I wonder if that specific ransomware attack spread nationwide.
Describe the moment you discovered Lincoln College was targeted by a cyberattack.
In all honesty, I want to say I was concerned, but I wasn’t as concerned as I should have been. I wasn’t really bothered by it, and I thought they could just fix it. Then I found out it wasn’t that simple. That’s when I started to pay attention. I wanted to know what exactly happened. What did this cyberattack do? Why did it target a small town like Lincoln? That’s when I learned about how cyberattacks have hurt communities across the country and how it is a nationwide problem.
How did this attack disrupt your personal life?
I had my plans set to attend Lincoln College for my senior year. But then I found out the school was closing. At first, we all thought the closure was an April Fools prank. But April Fools passed, and the administration said it was actually real. It was like a slap in the face. I had to ask myself, “What do I do now?” Now, I need to scramble and start from square one… again. I need to reach out to coaches, reach out to schools, I need to send transcriptions.
The news was definitely a shocker. Nobody saw it coming. We were all heartbroken about it. I just got here, and things were starting to turn around for me academically and socially. What I really wanted was to have the college experience. I absolutely love Lincoln College, and I love everybody there.
How did the cyberattack impact others? How did they react?
My friends and I were in the same boat. They didn’t know what was going to happen or what they were going to do next. As for professors, some cared about reaching out to students. Others didn’t care as much.
We started the Save Lincoln College page on social media, trying to get everybody together so that we could spread the word about our situation. We needed to get funds to operate and keep Lincoln College open. Even though we did get some media attention, I feel like we could have done a lot more. If we had more time, we would have been able to get the help that we needed.
How did the college respond to the cyberattack?
Honestly, I don’t know how they responded. However, they were not that informative, or not as informative as I believe they should have been. They should have been more transparent with students and staff about what happened, how it happened, and what we can do to recover from it.
Have you discussed this experience with your family or friends?
Yes. They had the same questions that the students had because something was not lining up. We all felt like we were missing some type of detail, or some type of information.
What was the most concerning aspect of this ransomware attack?
The most concerning aspect was how it forced all of us to start from square one. It was an eye-opener. Many considered Lincoln College a home away from home. Some students had nowhere else to go after the closure. They didn’t know if they could or would continue their education. Some believed colleges were not going to accept them because of their past experiences or backgrounds. Students had to go to different areas, back to their hometowns. Some of the towns were not safe places, so it definitely put a toll on a lot of people.
How much did you know about cyberattacks or cyberwarfare before you experienced the attacks against Lincoln College and your previous employer?
I didn’t know anything about it.
Has the experience made you change your online habits?
I’ve always been cautious anytime I use the Internet, but I’m more cautious now than before.
What would you tell people unaware of the threat of cyberattacks and cyberwarfare?
Be aware. Be alarmed. Be alert. Cyberattacks can be very dangerous. They can affect the entire nation. This issue needs to grab the attention of the public soon, or the same thing is going to happen again. People need to be aware that the threat of cyberattacks is real and can impact any community. Lincoln College is no longer open because of a cyberattack.
Thank you so much for your time.
Have you been personally affected by a cyberattack? If so, we want to hear from you. Let us know by DMing our Twitter account @DigitalPeaceNow.