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How Columbia’s Insurance Management Master’s Program is Broadening This Claims Specialist’s Perspective on the Business of Insurance

As a claims insurance veteran for 25 years, Teresa Dryden-Smith felt inspired after reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese last year. “I pondered, ‘What is the hardest thing I can do in life?’” She had been considering a master’s degree and when she heard a colleague at her firm speak highly about her experience as a  master’s candidate at Columbia University, Dryden-Smith decided to apply. “I chose Columbia because I didn’t want to settle,” she says.

Dryden-Smith has completed only one semester of Columbia’s Master’s in Insurance Management curriculum, but she says she has already learned a great deal and fostered strong relationships with her fellow students in the online program. "My first semester was amazing—I learned a lot,” she says. The academic rigor and advanced content not only motivate her to work harder, but pushes her to learn more about the range of roles across the insurance industry as well as find creative, new ways to solve real-life challenges. “I was in unfamiliar territory with a lot of the subject matter. But we are in a learning environment, so it was time for me to learn how to ask questions and figure out how to get through it.”

Columbia’s holistic Insurance Management curriculum immediately exposed her to subjects she’d never directly encountered in her day-to-day responsibilities. Topics have included underwriting, regulations, and risk management. "The course interactions provide a level of depth that you can take back to real-life roles. The classes in underwriting and sales have given me useful advice even though they’re not in my field. They’ve given me the perspective to help me figure out how to do my role differently in order to be helpful to them.”

As a claims professional in the Product, Pricing, and Distribution course, Dryden-Smith’s perspective on the material differs from that of an actuary or an underwriter. The diversity of her classmates’ careers and the problem-based learning assignments, she says, have led her to make peer connections in order to successfully understand and complete the coursework. Dryden-Smith says she’s had to lean on her peers and faculty with the appropriate experience for help. The dynamic is reciprocal; she also provides her unique insights as well. During one of many group projects, a classmate shared a candid realization about Dryden-Smith’s role as a claims specialist. “[H]e told me that he never realized what my role entails. He thought I was just a canary chirping back to the underwriters!”

On paper, job titles can look one way, she says, but through course interactions, students learn about the nuances of their peers’ jobs. It also trains insurance professionals on how to work with other people across any organization and how to ask the right questions to get the answers you need, she explains.

Dryden-Smith’s mantra is to be ready to learn, grow and change, and so far, she’s satisfied with her decision to enroll.“ Other programs are structured to help you pass the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU®) and are not zooming in on applying content to day-to-day professional activities and interacting with colleagues. Columbia’s curriculum uses real-life examples. Practical application is so important.”

Dryden-Smith experienced working with people that she had never met in person due to the pandemic, and she had to deal with students of varying personality types. She quickly realized that they all had to come up with solutions while making sure their messages are heard. Her advice for future students is to chip away at it a semester at a time. “I worked hard and learned a lot. Invest in yourself. I have gained the confidence to have conversations that I wouldn’t have had with people in areas that I wouldn’t otherwise have contact with.”

When she worked in the state auto insurance business in the 1990s, there was a regimented business model of men in their 60’s and 70’s who ran the ship. “Looking back, when you went to make presentations to claims executives, it was like going to Mt. Olympus and approachability was not there. But nowadays, they are more approachable. Through the network in this program, I’ve learned that they are people like me, and people all have the same vulnerabilities," Teresa observed.

‘I’ve spent years in claims—the program, the theories we learn have opened my eyes to other career paths in the industry. I now interface with strangers at work, inquiring about my insureds from an entirely different perspective. The bars and restaurants [I work with] were all closing. Where are their businesses going? Will they gain momentum in the new year?’ It’s all very practical.”

Learn more about Columbia University’s Master of Professional Studies in Insurance Management program.