Actuary Actually!

I am Jaanvi Jhamtani. I grew up in Pune. Went to a CBSE school till 5th and then shifted to an ICSE school. In ICSE, the focus is on understanding. The ICSE teacher does not expect you to take notes when she talks. The ICSE English teaching is better – with more stress on writing. CBSE taught me to be humble; ICSE gave me the confidence to work independently. I genuinely enjoy learning. Understanding concepts should be higher priority than scoring marks. I never had to put much effort to study at home, yet I topped my school and Pune city with 97.6% in my 10th boards. My 12th was not as exciting, as I had to switch over to CBSE – and into rote mode again. I managed only a measly 90%. I did well in Physics, Chemistry and Math, but the Chemistry love story was not on par with Math and Physics. 

My first love was physics – and I thought that I could do some interesting research work in physics. So I appeared for the KVPY. This exam is the one you need to give in case you want admission at IISER or IISc. KVPY checks you not just on concepts from the 12th syllabus, but also the 10th one. In hindsight, I did not take my KVPY preparation seriously – probably did not solve too many previous year papers. As a result, I flunked my KVPY exams. The JEE involved too much work. I wasn’t sure if that work was worth it. One of my friends, who was appearing for the JEE, had a strict schedule: she slept for 4 hours and spent the rest of her time studying. Not my kind of lifestyle, dude. (Btw, this friend made it to IISER, Pune, where she is now majoring in astrophysics.) I strive to live a balanced life: study time happens only after I have exhausted the budgets of sleep time, health time, me-time, friends and family time. 

In grade 11, my goal was to be independent and successful; maybe even a CEO. Along with my friends, we did funky stuff like organising football tournaments. A chance coffee chat with our neighbour gave me the idea of a more liberal education in the US, where changing majors is easy and you are allowed to pick classes that interest you. I started my preparation at the end of 11th standard, which did not leave her too much time for preparation. What helped was Bulls Eye’s Mandar sIr, who made a customised training program for me. You may also need to appear for subject SATs, which depend on the course that you are applying to. The general SAT has two sections: math and english. Math is easy for most Indian students, English requires help. My advice is to spend more time on reading – nonfiction more than fiction. With the help of Bulls Eye, I was able to quickly give my SAT, ACT and subject SATs. I got into the Honors College at Rutgers University with a major in Math. 

Sometimes I get asked the question: what should I do if I have to choose between passion and money. My answer: find a way to link the two. Setting goals for people, who are unclear about passions, is a trial and error pyramid. You start off by being interested in a lot of stuff. You experiment – and knock off things that you don’t get along too well with in practical life. And end up arriving at something that works – a process of elimination. If you are clueless about what the base of the goal pyramid should look like – start with the subjects that you like in school. Research these subjects and find out what kind of careers can they lead to. Will you earn enough in those careers? 

One tip that I can share with my goal challenged friends. If you are planning to land up in the US, join a big university, because then you will have a bigger variety of courses to experiment with. Don’t just get into something because everybody around you is getting into it. One of the options you can experiment with is to do the same thing that your BFF is doing. I like the concept of shadowing that I see in the US. Where you can sit next to a person and watch her as she goes through her day. For example, if you want to become an architect, you spend a day with an architect, just observing her at work. Another thing that helps is part time work. When I was in school, I approached mom to take her permission to work at Starbucks. She refused. In contrast, the average US kid starts part time work as early as 14. These experiences really help in making up your mind.

My parents have raised me to be super independent so I didn’t suddenly feel like an adult when I moved to New Jersey.  US folks are very accepting of differences. Life in America is very independent and there is a lot of freedom. Students in college usually stay on campus, not at home. People are devoted towards serving their community and standing up on their feet. Students talk to their professors as friends, it’s more casual. People don’t think too much about their future. It’s more about living in the present. They usually spend what they earn. 

A lot of Indians feel lonely when they go to the US because they focus only on academics and not relationships. The move out of India enables you to form a new set of friends. What is important is the diversity in your friendship. You need to exit your comfort zone to seek this diversity. Although most of my friends are desi Americans, I can count Hispanics, Blacks and Muslms in my friend circle at Rutgers. What helped in this diversity is that New Jersey is a more liberal geography, unlike places like Alabama, where an anti-abortion law was passed recently. Even then, adjusting takes time. In the first semester, I had only Indian friends. Later on, as I got used to US culture, I started mixing more with local US folks. I remember the advice I received from my desi roommate after I had not done well in one subject. She told me that Indian mugging style does not work well in US courses. You need to be more open. 

Studies in the US are more practical than theoretical. More projects. More independent study hours than class hours. You’re allowed to pick and change your major. You have the freedom to pick your classes and professors. You can study a unique combination of subjects. For example, my friend is studying actuarial math with South Asian studies. Another thing I really like is their focus on writing and English. At Rutgers, apart from Math, I take a variety of classes: Exposition and Argument, Food Energy Water Nexus, Past Today: why conflicts endure. I am part of the public service club and the leadership club. 

When I first came to Rutgers, I wanted to be a data scientist. When I found out that data science is heavy in Computer Science, my interest dropped. Around that time I got introduced to actuarial science. Who is an actuary? These are the folks who decide how much premium you should pay on your insurance policy. I attended an actuarial club meeting at Rutgers University where I got to meet actuaries. I realised that this field is a perfect fit for me! It is a combination of my favourite subjects: Math, Finance, Economics, and Statistics. Soon after, I gave my first actuarial exam and got an internship with Aon, where I am working on a project in catastrophe modeling. 

People could accuse me of running away from JEE or not trying hard enough for the KVPY. My response: Not only should we know how, it is also important to know how much. You could call this another name for laziness, but I think that’s a choice I have made. My goal at Rutgers is not a perfect GPA, but growth. Most of you will associate independence with finance. I associate it more with opinion. I plan to return to India after working for some time in the US. Currently, I work as a learning assistant and use the money I earn to eat good food at new restaurants and travel. My favourite weekend destination is New York City which is only an hour away from my campus. My stay in the US has introduced me to global cuisines and global people and it is this diversity that I have come to value.