Mei Li Zuber was 6 when her mother decided to adopt her, and 7 when they discovered she couldn’t read.
Nancy Zuber, a high school guidance counselor, was a volunteer at the then Children’s Home-Chambliss Shelter in Chattanooga, Tenn., when Mei Li was placed there after being removed from a neglectful and abusive home.
It took years — “I think they lost the paperwork three times in the system,” Mei Li said — and finding a home was not the end of Mei Li’s challenges.
In second grade she was still struggling, and was labeled a slow learner. Nothing clicked until Nancy discovered Mei Li had been “reading” by memorizing stories precisely. She didn’t recognize the written word at all.
It was the turning point, and time for a tutor. Within two years, Mei Li shot from the 16th percentile in reading to the 98th percentile. By senior year, she scored a perfect 36 on the reading portion of the ACT college admissions test, took every honors and advanced placement class offered at her high school, kept a 3.93 GPA, volunteered with numerous community groups, tutored Guatemalan students in English, and earned a full scholarship to college.
Today, Mei Li is an Air Force veteran who has served in Turkey and Germany. She’s studying full time, and she’s the newest cybersecurity engineer with Firma IT Solutions.
That rocky start is behind her, but it still drives her determination and her attitude: Don’t look back; don’t overlook people; look for ways to help others. This week, Mei Li Zuber sat down with the Business Journal to tell her story.
You called your early childhood “an experience.” What was it like?
It was scary at first. Life was just scary in general, before we got to the children’s shelter — but even after that, you still don’t really know what’s happening. And at 6½ you’re like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just getting shuffled around here.’ But I finally found my home with my mom.
Did you go straight from high school to the military?
I actually had a full honor scholarship to East Tennessee State University. That didn’t exactly work out as planned. When I started going there, I was going to major in biology and my plan was to become a pediatric physical therapist — really different from what I’m doing as a cybersecurity engineer, though I have to say I’m much happier with what I’m doing now. I don’t think I was ready to go to college because that was the first time I was really off by myself, and senior year [of high school] was pretty rough on me. I think it’s rough on a lot of people, but I had a couple of added stressors that most people probably don’t have to deal with their senior year. So I was 3½ hours away from home, and I’m in a dorm room with another person that I don’t know, so I kind of spiraled out of control and ended up having to come back home. …
I picked the military because I knew going back to school at that time wasn’t the best idea; I would just end up wasting more time and money. The other options were to start an apprenticeship or get a low wage job, because that’s all I could get with a high school diploma. The military would not only give me education along the way, but would give me discipline, and there’s also educational benefits during and after your military career. Right now I’m actually using my post-911 GI bill to go to college.
Tell us about your Air Force career.
I was in the Air Force for four years. … My first duty station was in Turkey. This was back when ISIS was a lot more active than they are now, and a week or less after I got there they green-lighted Operation Inherent Resolve, which was to go after ISIS in Syria. And our base was only like 11 clicks from the border with Syria so we were a prime candidate to go over and drop bombs on those guys. So I get there, and I only got to go off base one time before we went on lockdown. … So that was not so great. [We couldn’t leave the base] — eight square miles, for about a year and a half. After that, I fortunately got a slightly better assignment to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. I went to Amsterdam, Austria, Italy, Paris — well, technically just Disneyland Paris. … I separated from the Air Force in Germany in February of this year, and then came out here.
Do you see big differences in cybersecurity between the military and the civilian world?
Definitely. Just because in the military, it’s pretty much forced down your throat … because the military cannot afford to have somebody exploit a vulnerability on the network. On the civilian side, unfortunately, I’ve already run to clients or potential clients that we told them, ‘Hey, you’ve got these vulnerabilities,’ or ‘These things could let somebody in on your network and get your data and your customers’ data.’ And they’re like, ‘Meh.’ I’m just like, ‘What? You’re just gonna let that go?’
It’s kind of crazy, because for the people who deal with [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] information, your local chiropractor, your dentist, whatnot — for one violated HIPAA record, that’s up to $50,000 [in penalties]. Just one. Then for people who run credit card information, which is just about everybody these days, that can be up to $5,000. If [you’re breached and] you don’t have cyber liability insurance and you’re a small business, you’re going to go under within six months. I also see a lot more vulnerabilities on the outside. … Out here it’s a much wider net of what could happen and what the vulnerabilities are.
What do you like best about your work?
What I like best is that it’s not just about me doing a job; I’m actually helping these people stay protected from malicious software, and malicious people — and I’m also protecting the community. These small businesses sometimes don’t even know what they’re vulnerable to, until we tell them, ‘Hey, this is what your network is open to,’ and they’re like, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t even guess that my printer was an issue.’
What would you like to be doing in five years?
Oh, that’s difficult. I’ve never been a great planner. … I would like to stay in the same field that I am now. Honestly, I really enjoy working for [Firma IT Solutions founder] Rodney [Gullatte Jr.]. So depending on how things go, hopefully we can continue this five years down the road. Maybe I’ll be some kind of senior cybersecurity engineer at the company.
Why is volunteering so important to you?
Well, just being from the background that I was, where the home that I came from wasn’t so great and there wasn’t anybody around to help me with school — which is why my mom didn’t figure out that I was actually pretty smart until I learned how to read and became a very voracious reader. And I know that there’s other people out there are in that situation, and they just need somebody to help them out, give them a leg up to make their way out of that situation, or just have somebody that believes in them. Because you might see this poor little kid that’s not really clean, who struggles with work — and people make assumptions. Like, there was actually one point where my father had shaved my head, because I had decided to do what most little kids do when they finally get scissors: I cut a nice little chunk out of my bangs. And that was my punishment. My kindergarten teacher thought I was a boy at first. She was my hero for the longest time, because she used to keep crackers and snacks in her desk for me because [before being moved to the shelter] my brother and I would have to ride the public bus together to get to school. A lot of times by the time we would get to school, breakfast would already be over and that’s one meal of the day that I’m missing because we didn’t get it at home. That’s a long time between breakfast and lunch. So she would keep those crackers and snacks and her desk for me. She was definitely my hero. But that was a big reason why I’ve volunteered so much. I know what it’s like to be scared and hungry and not know where to go or who to turn to.
What’s the best advice you’ve had?
The best advice I’ve had is to always keep looking forward. Because I know, personally, I’ve had a hard time sometimes letting go of things from the past, or things that I should put behind me. And I know that looking forward to the future and to things that are better is a much greater use of my time than looking back … It’s in the past now, I can’t really go back and change that. So just keep looking forward.