Weihan Chang: New York, New Heights

Weihan Chang wanted to expand his skills before returning to the workforce. Originally from California, he began to pursue a career as an actuary as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, where he majored in Applied Math. Soon afterward, he landed a role at a health benefits consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he remained for seven years. However, in 2009, a family emergency prompted him to take a hiatus from his career.

“My mom, her cancer had metastasized,” he tells me, “and it was a priority for me to spend time with my family at that point.” He says, “After my mom passed away, I wanted to leave California….and gain a fresh perspective.”

In fall 2011, he entered the M.S. program in Actuarial Science. Not only would his graduate program ease him back into the workforce, it would provide him with new skills and the networking opportunities to advance his career.

He now works at Prudential Financial, Inc., one of the world's largest financial services institutions, in the enterprise risk management department. He spoke with us from his office in Newark, NJ about his path to graduate school, the real-world training that he received in the program, and his current role at Prudential.

What were you doing right before the Actuarial Science program?

Prior to Columbia, I was working in an actuarial role at a health benefits consulting firm. We were specializing in designing self-funded plans for our clients.

I had quit my job in 2009, and that was to take care of some family stuff and spend time with my family. From 2009 up until I started at Columbia, I was not working, by choice. My mom, her cancer had metastasized, and it was a priority for me to spend time with my family at that point.

I decided to go back to school because I knew I wanted to maintain a career in the actuarial science industry, but I wasn't completely sold on going back to my old role. I wanted to try something different.

Why did you want to come to Columbia and move to New York?

After my mom passed away, I wanted to leave California. I had spent pretty much my whole life there. Even my work experience had been entirely in California. I wanted to get a fresh perspective. Also, the New York metropolitan area houses nearly a quarter of all the actuarial jobs in the nation. I felt like it was a strategic location for me.

Did you have a specific career goal that you wanted to achieve through the program?

From when I graduated from undergrad and for the next seven years, I worked at the same company. It was a small outfit. I kind of wanted to see what the larger corporate structure [could offer].

I also wanted to focus on my individual development explicitly. I had done some of my VEE (Validation by Educational Experience) credits when I was working before, but I actually hadn't passed a single exam at that point. There was a concentrated effort to get my exams done, coming into the program.

What are you doing now at Prudential?

At Prudential, I'm in the Actuarial Leadership Development Program, ALDP for short. It's a rotational program [for future leaders at Prudential]. My current role, I'm in the Enterprise Risk Management organization, specifically in Investment Risk Management. We monitor our credit risk exposure throughout our asset allocations.

What do you think was particularly valuable about the program?

I think the value of the program really was in the emphasis of developing communications skills and developing business skills. Although there is a good base of fundamental, theoretical courses, and technical courses that you need to take, they were developing these elective courses that gave you practical knowledge. There were courses on ALM (asset liability management), there were courses on retirement and pension topics, there was a course on life and annuity accounting.

A lot of these topics, you really wouldn't get exposed to them in a normal program; you would only be exposed to those within a work environment. After taking those courses, you can go into an actuarial position and have a leg up.