Liam Benjamin is a sophomore at St. John’s University in New York. He is an Actuarial Science major within St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance, and Actuarial Science and will be graduating in May 2021. Liam is the Director of Alumni Relations for St. John’s chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma and is also an on-campus student ambassador for St. John’s. We spoke with Liam in April 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
I recently started following Formula 1 racing. I know that many people just think it’s a bunch of drivers doing laps over and over again, but once you really start to get into it and see the different strategies that different driving teams use, it can be really interesting.
I’m also really into hot sauce. You definitely won’t find that on my resume. I’ve actually started a collection of hot sauces. There’s a show that I’m a big fan of on YouTube called Hot Ones, where celebrities are interviewed while eating increasingly spicy wings. That show really drove me to start collecting hot sauces and putting hot sauces on pretty much everything I eat now.
It’s a privilege to work in the insurance industry. It’s an industry that provides peace of mind to millions of people all around the world, so it really feels good to be able to play an active role in that.
What has your experience at St. John’s University been like?
I’m really glad that I chose to come to St. John’s. One of the main reasons I like it is its proximity to New York City. There are many activities you can do in the city, as well as a lot of very good restaurants. That was really important to me.
The main campus is actually in Queens, whereas the School of Risk Management is in Manhattan, which is just for students who are taking Risk Management and Actuarial Science as a major. It’s really nice to get to study so close to the office buildings of some of the largest insurance companies in the world.
Our Queens campus gives you the whole college campus feel that other universities will offer. I’ve been able to meet most of my friends at the Queens campus, especially since being a member of Gamma Iota Sigma. And I’m now privileged to serve as the Director of Alumni Relations. So there are many activities to do within the city, but I particularly enjoy being an active member of Gamma Iota Sigma.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose St. John’s?
I applied mainly to schools in the New York and Florida area, such as NYU, Fordham, Colgate, Hofstra, and Rollins College. However, at that point, my intended major was computer science, not actuarial science. I was leaning toward St. John’s University mainly for financial reasons, but then I started to do a bit of research on their actuarial program.
I realized that St. John’s has one of the best actuarial science programs in the country, they have connections with some of the biggest insurance companies in the world, and they also have a brilliant career services team here. That really solidified my decision to switch from computer science to actuarial science, and then I eventually made my decision to go to St. John’s University.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
My dad always mentioned actuarial science during my time in high school as a career field, but I never really took him seriously. He always mentioned that I had two cousins who were actuaries, and every time we went to a family reunion, he would try to introduce me to them. But still, I never really thought of it as something I’d want to do. I never really did much research on it, so I just thought it was something that sounded weird.
In high school, I was really good at accounting and computer science. In fact, I was actually one of the top ten students within the Caribbean in those two subjects, but I was never really set on majoring in either of those. I eventually chose computer science, but I was still searching for a field that would allow me to stay within a business environment, while being able to use coding. I was trying to look for the best of both worlds.
That’s when I found the actuarial science program at St. John’s, and I started to do more research on what actuarial science was. I realized that, with actuarial science, I would still be within the financial sector, but I would also be able to utilize my programming skills. That’s really what urged me to change from computer science to actuarial science because I found the best of both worlds in terms of what I was interested in.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
For me, it’s a privilege to work in the insurance industry. It’s an industry that provides peace of mind to millions of people all around the world, so it really feels good to be able to play an active role in that. Many people wouldn’t be able to survive without insurance. They wouldn’t be able to pay for their totaled vehicle without insurance. They wouldn’t be able to leave something for their family when they die without life insurance. So, I think it’s a privilege to be able to work in this industry.
However, I don’t really think that actuarial science limits people to working within the insurance industry. Actuaries have a deep knowledge of finance and risk-based analysis. So it’s very easy for them to move around to other industries as well.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
St. John’s has a really great program and is a Center of Actuarial Excellence, as designated by the Society of Actuaries. It’s really been a great experience for me to interact with professors who have had years of experience within the insurance industry, and I’ve also been able to make some great friends within the program. The class sizes here are pretty small, so you really get to know your professors on a personal level, as well as your fellow students.
It’s also great to be able to take classes in the Big Apple. You can go to class and then go to a really nice restaurant after class, or go do a fun activity after class as well. Being able to take classes in New York City is a very huge advantage.
The actuarial classes here prepare us for about five actuarial exams. Many students try to take as many exams as they can while in school, so they won’t have to take as many while working full-time. St. John’s actually provides exam reimbursement, so if a student passes the exam, that student would be reimbursed for their exam fee. I’ve had the opportunity to make use of that provision as well, and it really gives students an incentive to pass as many exams as possible.
In terms of career services, we have two ladies who are dedicated to having actuarial students obtain internships and full-time jobs, so it’s really good to work along with them. They try to encourage students to come in as early as their freshman year, so I’ve been going to them since my freshman year to get my resume and cover letters checked up on and to improve my interview skills.
In terms of clubs, I joined Gamma Iota Sigma as a freshman. One of the main events that really made me an actual member was “Keggers to Cocktails,” which is an event where we bring alumni back to our Manhattan campus, as well as current students, and we get to network with them, as well as learn about various techniques we could use during networking events.
I thought that it was really nice to see how, even though these people had graduated, they’re still an active part of our chapter, and it’s really a family. Gamma Iota Sigma really is a family, and I wanted to be part of that family. I had the opportunity to serve on the associate board, and now I am serving on the executive board as the Director of Alumni Relations. It’s pretty much come full circle because next semester, I will be the one who is organizing “Keggers to Cocktails,” which is the same event that drew me to the club in the first place.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
One of my favorite classes has been Principles of Risk Management and Insurance. This is actually a required class for all business students, not just Actuarial and Risk Management students. Our business school really recognizes the importance of having an understanding of risk management and insurance and how it applies to your life and work. It was really important to me to get a broad view of the insurance and risk management industry. I had a great professor, Professor Pooser. He has a great sense of humor, but you could tell that he also wanted to challenge us as students as well.
Another class I enjoyed was a financial derivatives class. This is a class that is required by actuarial majors because it prepares us for our third actuarial exam, Exam IFM. It is a challenging class, but I really enjoyed it because I really liked learning about various techniques that hedge fund managers or other people within the financial industry use to hedge and speculate within the financial sector.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
One of the main challenges is time management. Studying actuarial science really requires you to manage your time very wisely, and in many cases, you are taking some of the toughest courses that your university has to offer. And you’re doing this all while trying to stay involved on campus, preparing for interviews for internships, and studying for actuarial exams that are taken separate from your college coursework.
Personally, I serve on the executive board of our local chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma. I’m also a student ambassador on campus, which means that I give tours, and I play a role in attracting prospective students to our university. I also have a job on campus where I serve as a mathematics tutor in the university’s tutoring center. It can be really challenging to manage those obligations all at once, so having a good schedule and having a good calendar will really help you in accomplishing all of your goals.
I wish I had known that being an actuary means more than just passing exams. Companies are not just hiring people who can pass exams. It’s important to be involved on campus and to show that you are more than just good at math. It’s necessary to work on those people skills. As a freshman, I came in just wanting to pass as many exams as possible. Now I’ve learned that while exams are important, you also need to attend networking events and career fairs to start learning how to interact with industry professionals.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
I had two internships as a freshman. My first internship was with the Social Security Board in Antigua, because I am originally from Antigua in the Caribbean. That was mainly doing a lot of work with pensions and checking to see if people meet certain criteria to receive a pension, as well as working on how much that pension amount would be. I would say that was more administrative, but it really taught me about working in an office environment.
During the summer after my freshman year, I had the opportunity to work at an insurance company in Antigua called Caribbean Alliance Insurance. It was more of a general insurance internship, rather than actuarial. I got some time to work in the claims department, underwriting department, and in the accounts and finance department. I really got to learn about how an insurance company works and how the various departments within an insurance company work with each other.
It also introduced me to the field of reinsurance. I got to see how reinsurance played a big role for that insurance company, and I think that really got me interested in the reinsurance field. This summer, I will be working for a reinsurance company, so I’m really looking forward to that.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I am definitely interested in reinsurance, and I hope to stay within that realm. However, I’m still going to be open-minded and try to accept any challenges that may come my way. In terms of becoming a certified actuary, I hope to pass as many exams as I can. Within the next four to five years, hopefully I will be able to achieve my goal of becoming a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries.
I also hope to play a big role in the Caribbean insurance market because I’m originally from the Caribbean, so being able to make a contribution would definitely be personally satisfying for me.
I also hope to transition from the actuarial role to more of a data science role sometime in the future. I think data science and Big Data are going to play a huge role in the insurance industry and pretty much every industry within the next two years, and I hope to play a role in that.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
Try to meet as many people as possible within the industry and try to learn about their experiences and how they view the industry. The insurance industry is pretty small. You get to meet people pretty quickly. It’s definitely important to try to meet as many people as you can and try to make connections as early as possible.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
I know many companies post various interesting articles about different trends within the insurance industry and how their company is trying to manage those trends. I follow Swiss Re’s website in particular, because I will actually be interning for them this summer. They have an article called Sigma that provides information on various trends within the insurance industry and the global economy.
I have a good book that’s not really insurance-related, but I think it’s pretty important. It’s called Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. The book really shows how technology is going to change various industries around the world, and I think it applies to the insurance industry because many insurance companies are trying to incorporate various forms of technology in their practices to make purchasing insurance easier, as well as trying to be as efficient as possible.