Mariana Velkovich is a senior at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. She is majoring in Actuarial Science and will be graduating this May. Mariana is an undergraduate learning assistant and also Secretary for the Actuarial Science Club. We spoke with Mariana in March 2019.
Tell us about your experience at Michigan State.
My experience at Michigan State has been great. I’ve really enjoyed all of my classes, as well as the extracurriculars that I’ve been involved in, specifically, the Actuarial Science Club and my job as a mathematics undergraduate learning assistant. Both of these activities have led to most of the friendships I’ve made here at Michigan State, and they’ve also allowed me to take on leadership roles throughout the university.
Currently, I’m the secretary of the Actuarial Science Club, and that’s allowed me to meet a lot more of my peers in the program here, as well as come up with new activities for the club. Being an undergraduate learning assistant has been a great experience as well because it’s given me the opportunity to meet a lot of new people who aren’t in actuarial science.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Michigan State?
I transferred to Michigan State my sophomore year, and I actually began my college experience at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was undecided on a major when I went into Wayne State, and I eventually decided on Actuarial Science. I began to look for a school with a well-known program here in Michigan because I didn’t want to leave the state, and I ended up only applying to transfer to Michigan State. Part of that was because Michigan State has a fairly new, growing program, so I thought I could grow with the program.
Once I started looking into actuarial science, I found that it was actually a top-rated career, and it was also focused on both math and business, which both intrigue me.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
When I was undecided on a major, I jumped around a lot. I was thinking pharmacy, and then I was leaning toward business—I was just all over the place. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I’d always loved math throughout high school and middle school. One day, I was sitting in my calculus class, and I realized that if I did pursue something like pharmacy or business, that would probably be one of the last math classes that I would have to take. And that’s what made me realize that I actually wanted to find a major that would keep incorporating math and apply math to a career.
I started to look for a math-related field, and during this time, my boyfriend had heard through a family friend about being an actuary, so he mentioned the career to me. When he first said the word “actuary,” I had no idea what he was talking about. But once I started looking into it, I found that it was actually a top-rated career, and it was also focused on both math and business, which both intrigue me. That’s when I decided that actuarial science was for me.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
Something really interesting about actuarial science is that it’s made up of a variety of different components. There’s the upper-level math and statistics, but then there’s also the business aspect. There’s also the programming aspect, as we’re seeing more data and technology being incorporated. Because actuarial science has all of these different components, that allows us to apply our education to many different fields. By focusing on actuarial science, you can open many doors for yourself, and you don’t necessarily have to be a traditional actuary.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
I’ve had a really positive experience with the program at MSU. Our program is still fairly young, but it is definitely growing. Transferring here gave me a lot of opportunities that I would otherwise not have had.
Similar to many other actuarial science programs, our coursework is aimed at helping students prepare for the preliminary exams. But in addition, we also have some project-based courses that give us exposure to programs like Excel and SAS.
Another major opportunity here is our Actuarial Science Club. In the fall, we have companies come in to present nearly every week, and this gives us the opportunity to network with actuaries in our area as well as find potential internships and full-time job opportunities.
My professors and advisor here have made all the difference. They’re the people I have to thank for always being more than willing to help with classes or exams or giving advice about jobs.
Something else that I appreciate is that although Michigan State is a really large school, our program is still relatively small, allowing us to have smaller class sizes and more exposure to our professors and advisors. I think this all leads to a more laid-back environment, where the professors know all of the students by name. I really enjoyed this aspect of the program.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class so far has been Stats 455: Actuarial Models I. This course focuses on the beginning of the Exam LTAM material, and the textbook we used is Actuarial Mathematics for Life Contingent Risks by Dickson, Hardy, and Waters.
I had briefly learned about life contingencies during one of my training sessions in my internship this past summer. Even though I had no idea what was going on, the topic really intrigued me. I became really interested in the material and was excited to take this class. The main reason I ended up enjoying this class so much is the fact that I could really see everything coming together in the course, from learning about life probabilities to being able to apply what I learned to harder problems.
In my opinion, the goal of learning math is to learn concepts, practice simple problems, and then be able to apply those concepts to larger multi-step problems that are more difficult. This is something that I really noticed happening throughout this course for me. There would always be a few challenging problems on the exams, but by taking the concepts that I had learned, I was able to break down those multi-step problems and successfully solve them. This challenging process of making sure I had a good understanding of the material was really satisfying for me.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
The most challenging thing about actuarial science is something that I knew ahead of time, but I hadn’t realized the magnitude of, and that’s the constant studying. It really never ends. I’m graduating now, but I’m still going to have to study for exams, and while it’s something that I enjoy at times, when it’s so constant, it can definitely get tiresome.
Something else that I’ve struggled with is a lot of my friends don’t understand what actuarial science is or the amount of time it takes to study for exams. A lot of people tell me that I’m overreacting because they think I study too much. But that’s why something like our club here at MSU has been great because actuarial students can all come together with others who understand what we’re going through and can offer and get advice.
Have you had any insurance related internships? If so, how was your experience?
I had an internship last summer with Willis Towers Watson, the retirement consulting group in Southfield, Michigan. It was a great experience.
I went into the internship not knowing anything about pensions or actuarial work and barely knowing anything about Excel, and I came out feeling like I had learned so much. The internship program there consisted of mini-training sessions as well as assignments to solidify what was taught. So, for example, we would learn about a concept like a defined benefit plan, and we would go back and have a defined benefit calculation homework.
One of my favorite experiences there was having the chance to attend a client meeting, which gave me the opportunity to see how all of the backend calculations go into a presentation to a client. Because I hope to one day become an actuarial consultant, it was a great experience to see the consultants there in action.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I was offered a full-time position as an actuarial analyst at Willis Towers Watson beginning this summer. I’m excited to begin my career at such a great company, and I hope to grow in the company and eventually become a pension consultant. I also hope to have the opportunity to hold a management position in the company one day.
In terms of exams, I hope to complete my FSA in about six more years. I’ve already passed two exams, and I’m hoping that I can pass the rest soon.
Something I’ve considered for the long term is teaching. I’ve realized through being an undergraduate learning assistant that one of my passions is teaching and helping people learn. If I one day had the opportunity to become an actuarial professor, I would love to take that on. I’m passionate about teaching as well as the actuarial profession, and being able to mix the two would be great.
What has been your experience being an undergraduate learning assistant?
It’s definitely been great. It prepared me for my future in ways that I didn’t necessarily see happening. I originally took it on as a job, and I felt that it would be a great resume builder, but I really didn’t see the potential of what I could learn until I was actually on the job.
Being an undergraduate learning assistant has taught me that, as actuaries, we’re going to have to take really complex calculations, figure them out, and present the results to a client or someone in upper management who may not have all of the math or actuarial knowledge that we do. We need to be able to explain these complex ideas in a way everyone in our audience can understand. As an undergraduate learning assistant teaching college algebra, I’ve had to think of ways to explain complex ideas in a way that students who are just learning the subject can understand.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
I think that most of the newest trends are going to be driven by data and technology, as much of this is changing. One of the most interesting developments is with regards to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, for example. This AI is creating a lot of scenarios and questions for the insurance industry, and it’s going to be creating issues that people like actuaries are going to have to solve.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
A lot of people tend to think that insurance sounds really boring, and I would encourage you not to be discouraged because you might think insurance is boring or other people are telling you that it’s boring. In reality, there’s so much that goes into insurance, and it’s incredibly interesting because the possibilities are truly endless. There are so many different types of insurance and so many interesting problems for people in insurance to solve. It’s a really rewarding field, and it will definitely keep you on your toes.
Do you have any favorite books or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
In terms of social media, there is a great subreddit for actuaries (r/actuary). There are a lot of threads about exam prep, internships, resume advice, etc. I also think Coaching Actuaries is a great resource because there are a lot of blogs on there that talk about different problems that people face, and it’s also where I get all of my study materials for exams.