This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Minority High School Scholars Actuarial Academy (MHSSAA) at Illinois State University, making it the oldest continuous academy of its kind in the nation.

MHSSAA is a week-long summer program that introduces the actuarial profession to mathematically talented high school students from underrepresented groups (African-American, Native-American, and Hispanic-American).

The key to the program’s success, said Actuarial Program Director Krzysztof Ostaszewski, is the continued support Illinois State offers to students, as well as the efforts to get the word out about the field.

“Students know we are here for them,” said Ostaszewski, who added that connection begins with recruiting. “Especially in the Chicago area, where there are a lot of students from underrepresented groups, they really have never heard of this profession. It is completely new to them.”

Ostaszewski takes it upon himself to speak at any high school across the state where there is interest. Illinois State also hosts two informational events in Chicago and Normal. High school counselors across the state receive information on the program, and a website has attracted students beyond Illinois.

“We have students from as far away as Florida and Texas,” said Program Coordinator Susan Mitchell, who noted they receive as many as 70 applications for the 20 spots the program provides.

The academy was created to give underrepresented high school students a better understanding of the insurance and financial services industries, as well as career opportunities. Currently, only about 2 percent of those working in the field come from underrepresented backgrounds, a number Ostaszewski hopes to change. “Actuarial professionals need to be able to work with their customers, and need to have some cultural competency, so of course diversity is important,” he said.

Ostaszewski said the program fits well at Illinois State, which was the first in Illinois to be recognized as a Center of Actuarial Excellence. “We have the history, so students know we will be there for them,” he said. The summer program, which is run through the Department of Mathematics with the support of the Katie School of Insurance, connects students with speakers from Allstate Insurance, State Farm Insurance Cos., COUNTRY Financial, Pinnacle Actuarial Resources, Towers Watson, and also with officials from the field.

image of a shirt

Image from a T-shirt from MHSSAA.

This year the program took place July 12-17 at Illinois State. Events included visiting the local insurance giants, a talk with the president of the Society of Actuaries, a meeting with Illinois State’s Provost Janet Krejci, and a chance for conversations with academy alumni and members of the Actuarial Program Advisory Board.

“It’s great when alumni of the academy can return and inspire the students,” said Ostaszewski. “They can say, ‘I did it, and so can you.’” He added that the academy empowers students to create professional contacts. “Here, they will develop networks with working actuaries and professional organizations that provide scholarships, internships, summer jobs, and mentoring to help get their foot in the door,” said Ostaszewski.

Since the beginning, the academy has emphasized the rigorous nature of the actuarial field. “It’s a very tough profession with a long series of professional exams to pass,” said Mike Plantholt, a professor in the Department of Mathematics. “The program introduces students to the profession, and lets them know Illinois State faculty and staff will be here for them.”

Support from the program continues for those who choose to go into the field. Participants qualify for a one-time scholarship of $300 upon enrollment in the actuarial sciences at a recognized university of their choice. If the student chooses to attend Illinois State and study actuarial science, they can receive up to $1,000 in scholarships from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Katie School of Insurance.

With a growing number of underrepresented students in Illinois State’s program, other schools are seeking Ostaszewski’s advice on how to entice students into the field. “Right now, about 10 percent of our actuarial students are from underrepresented backgrounds. That is still small, but it far outpaces the field. People want to know how we do it, and we tell them: You have to stick with these students, you have to provide support, you have to be in it for the long haul.”