ASU's 1st actuarial science grad lands job as analyst

August 19, 2015

Jeff Durham has always liked math: “Math is something I’ve always enjoyed — the way it makes you think about a problem.”

Durham is the first to earn an actuarial science degree from Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. He also received a concurrent bachelor’s degree in economics from the W. P. Carey School of Business. This combination of business and math skills helped him land his first job in the industry, as an actuarial analyst with Nautilus Insurance in Scottsdale.  two people talking at desk Jeff Durham (right), the first graduate of ASU's actuarial science program, talks with Brent Carr, vice president of actuarial and data analytics for Nautilus Insurance in Scottsdale. Download Full Image

“Many candidates have the math and business aptitude, but Jeff’s attitude is what stood out,” said Brent Carr, vice president of actuarial and data analytics for Nautilus Insurance. The company specializes in providing commercial property and casualty insurance within the excess and surplus lines industry.

“Jeff came across as a very genuine person – confident yet humble,” Carr said.

The actuarial science degree at ASU is one of the only offered in the Intermountain West. Although many people don’t know what an actuary is, a recent survey by CareerCast ranks it as the best job in the United States because of its high pay, low stress, robust hiring outlook and healthy work environment. Actuaries put a financial value on risk, such as the chances of a hurricane destroying a home or the long-term liabilities of a pension system.

While a student at ASU, Durham was president of the Actuary Club, which offers many opportunities for students.

“The Actuary Club at ASU allows you to meet professionals, shake hands, ask questions and engage them,” he said. 

He also credits a part-time job for helping to hone his people and leadership skills: “Working in restaurants gives you a good background in connecting with people on the spot.”

A line on Durham’s resume garnered some attention from Carr and his fellow interviewers: "Maximized efficiency to increase sales while maintaining high level of service." Carr was impressed with this creative way to phrase a waiter job when applying for an actuarial position.

“Jeff probably doesn’t know this, but we went through over 50 applicants for this position,” Carr explained. “There are three elements we look for: Can do, will do, and will fit. Can do is: Does the applicant have the intellectual horsepower to get the job done? Will do is: Do they have the ambition, are they a go-getter? And will fit is: Culturally is this somebody we think we can work with?”

“We want people who are not afraid to speak up, are comfortable in a group environment, and are strong team players. Jeff’s got all that — personality, confidence and charisma,” Carr said.

Jelena Milovanovic, professor of practice and actuarial science program coordinator, knew Durham would quickly land a job in the competitive actuarial field.

“Jeff is not only a diligent student but also a great role model. He passed the first two actuarial exams within a month of each other, setting the bar high for others to follow," she said.

Students must pass a series of professional exams to become credentialed actuaries. While at ASU, Durham passed his financial mathematics and probability actuarial exams. He recently passed his financial derivatives exam with the support of his company. 

“It’s awesome. I get paid study time at work. Thursday and Friday after lunch I switch gears and focus on my studying. It’s been extremely helpful,” Durham said. “They pay for the exams, and they give me study materials to use. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”

Carr agrees that this is one way for companies to stay competitive.

“The best employers, like Nautilus, will offer a competitive and financially rewarding study program. It’s unique to the industry,” he said.

In addition to preparing students for exams, ASU’s actuarial science program provides opportunities for students to meet face-to-face with top employers in the industry with events like the annual actuarial career day.

“My advice to students is network, network, network,” Durham explained. “The actuarial career day is a huge opportunity. I attended this year, and it was great to be able to approach the people I had met the year before. It can help you get your foot in the door so much more than listing ‘database skills’ on your resume.”

Nautilus’ Carr agrees: “The actuarial career day in the spring was outstanding, with many qualified applicants. The school put on a very professional event.”

As a new employee in the actuarial profession, Durham had heard he might have to wait as long as six months before he would really start contributing to his company. He was surprised that during his first week on the job, Carr asked him to prepare a rate review exhibit for a client meeting.

“I was pretty excited that my work was already being used. I was happy to contribute and help my teammates out right away,” he said.

Durham said the education he received at ASU helps determine how he thinks about things, and is actually useful.

After a meeting in his first few weeks at Nautilus, Durham came up with the idea of putting together a break-even analysis based on net income.

“And that was a tremendous insight for somebody that’s only been out of school for a month,” explained Carr.

“Nautilus is excited to be able to attract Jeff and build a pipeline with the ASU actuarial science program," Carr added. “It’s a very strong program.”

Durham is excited for his future at Nautilus.

“The work here is not necessarily easy; it’s definitely thought-provoking and requires you to really think about what you’re doing, which is nice because I’ve always been of the mind-set that you should work not necessarily as hard as you can, but as smart as you can,” he said.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


Non-traditional student's life a lesson to others

August 19, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of our back-to-school spotlight on notable incoming students. The series will run during the first two weeks of the fall semester. Read our other profiles here.

Cindy Wong had a lot of obstacles to overcome as a youth – some that have taken decades to reconcile. Cindy Wong is taking a non-traditional approach to earning a college degree. After a career as a paralegal, and taking time off for her two daughters, Raven (second from right), 10, and Sofia, 8, she’s pursuing a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, with the full support of the girls and her husband, Ramiro. Download Full Image

Domestic violence and substance abuse in the home were but a few of the issues she has had to tackle.

“I know what it’s like to live in poverty, shame and enduring major struggles at home,” Wong said. “I also know that I can help students in the same situation today and give them hope. That’s why I want to teach.”

The 36-year-old Wong, who comes to ASU this fall as a transfer student from Mesa Community College with a 4.0 GPA, will major in elementary education with a focus on bilingual education/English as a second language at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She is the recipient of the Emma May Patton VanBockern Scholarship, which was established by private support to provide financial assistance to students over the age of 30.

The scholarship will enable Wong to not only attend ASU, but also provide her with a full year of student teaching.

“It’s one of the reasons why I chose ASU,” Wong said. “I’ll not only get the tools to teach but gain a tremendous amount of experience.”

The graduate of North High in Phoenix said she was “lost” during her teen and early adult years as a result of a tumultuous childhood.

“My mother had a minimal education while my father had drug and alcohol issues,” Wong said of her parents, who were Mexican immigrants. “There was a lot of chaos and domestic violence in our house. Cops were often called, and I was very tormented inside. There was really no one around to help me, and I had to figure a lot of things out for myself.”

Wong’s personal turmoil caused her to develop bulimia as a teen, which carried over into her adult years after she graduated high school in 1997. She worked at a big-box retail store for several years, barely making ends meet when she had a lightbulb moment: “Education was the only way I was going to lift myself out of this rut.”

So she moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and enrolled in Dona Ana Branch Community College, where she eventually received her associate of arts degree. After 12 years working as a paralegal, she decided it was time to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

“The time had come where I felt like I wanted to do something that made a difference,” Wong said. “I realized I could make a difference in young people’s lives through teaching.”

In 2013 she attended Mesa Community College, where she completed an honors project of creating a STEM-based demonstration for a kindergarten class called “Earthquake in the Classroom,” which teaches concepts of civil engineering. She also taught “Music Masterpiece” to second- and fourth-grade students, introducing them to such classical musical artists as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin.

Wong’s goal, after she graduates in 2017, is to improve the quality of education for all students regardless of socioeconomic class or background.

“I want to be an example for my own kids and also for the children in the classroom whose parents may not have an education.”

Reporter , ASU Now