Photo: iStock.com/Mihaela Rosu
Growing up in areas of Marseille and Paris, France, that were poverty-stricken and violent at times, Sonya Rolande, FSA, MAAA, struggled to find her identity. She straddled two worlds: the underprivileged environment she lived in and the private school she attended thanks to her mother working two full-time jobs.
The longest night of Rolande’s life began on a Friday evening when she was 16 years old. She and her friends were caught shoplifting at a grocery store. Near midnight, she found herself confined to a jail cell at the local police station, head buried in shame and dreading the phone call her mother was about to receive. Rolande feared she had single-handedly destroyed her future. When she was released hours later, miraculously without a report attached to her record, she knew she had to drastically change her life.
Today, Rolande is the senior director of Performance Analysis at Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC) in Chicago. In this interview, she shares lessons she’s learned on her life and career journey.
Your story is an inspiration to many. Was there a particular individual who inspired you to become an actuary?
My aunt introduced me to the actuarial profession when I came to the United States at age 17 during high school. I didn’t realize how difficult the path to becoming an actuary would be until I took my first actuarial exam during my freshman year of college and failed terribly. At that time, I doubted whether I was suited for the profession or if I could achieve my actuarial fellowship.
However, at the end of my sophomore year of college, I attended my first International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., which one of my actuarial mentors recommended. At the IABA Award Ceremony, I saw many successful Black professionals being celebrated, and that was inspiring. I had never seen such success growing up, and it motivated me to strive for that same recognition. That moment marked a significant point in my journey as a young actuarial student.
How did growing up in an underprivileged environment shape your perspective on life?
During my childhood, I always sensed that something was not right about the neighborhoods I grew up in. I was exposed to violence, poverty, drugs and many other vices daily. While my parents created a happy environment for us at home, they couldn’t shield us from the daily realities we encountered to and from school. It wasn’t until they enrolled us in a private school in downtown Paris that I realized how underprivileged the neighborhoods I lived in were. This was when I truly understood the inequities that needed addressing, which sparked my interest in social justice.
I experienced a stark contrast daily, coming home to drug dealers in my building lobby, police constantly on watch for arrests and the stench of urine in elevators. Many of my private-school classmates were unaware of such realities. Every child deserves a safe environment to grow up in, but that wasn’t the reality I experienced. Seeing my neighborhood friends turn to drug dealing and end up in juvenile prison deeply affected me. I wrote a book, From Fallen to Fellow, to inspire and positively impact youth living in at-risk neighborhoods. I am passionate about ensuring inner-city youth have the same opportunities as others, despite where they grow up.
However, even with access to opportunities, issues like exposure to crime, drugs and parental absence can still adversely affect a child’s future. We can offer math tutoring programs in underserved communities, but there is a need for broader structures and policies to address these issues. My passion for change in these communities stems from a deep-seated desire to fix what I know is wrong.
Can you elaborate on how that night in jail changed the trajectory of your life?
At that time, I was close to being labeled a delinquent. I was struggling with my identity and felt ashamed of my life compared to my friends in private school. This led to rebellion against what I perceived as injustice toward people who looked like me, so I associated with other young people who felt the same anger.
Looking back, even though I know there is no excuse for my bad behavior, I can reflect on the internal struggles I faced and better relate to young people facing those challenges today. I am forever thankful to the police officer who recognized my struggles and didn’t immediately label me as a delinquent when I was arrested. He gave me a second chance, ensuring I didn’t have a police record that could follow me the rest of my life. This incident woke me up to the possibility of being a change agent instead of a rebel, and I am grateful for the grace extended to me.
Your parents’ dedication played a crucial role in your journey. Can you share a specific memory where their sacrifices or guidance had a profound impact on your choices?
My mother is one of my heroes. I hold a special admiration for her, just like many do for their mothers. Her dream was for my siblings and me to attend private school, believing it was the key to success in France, especially given the poor quality of schools in our neighborhoods.
In the early 1990s, my parents struggled financially with having three kids and couldn’t see a way out of their hardships despite having graduate degrees. My mother, determined for us to have a better life, worked two full-time jobs to afford private school for us. She worked tirelessly day and night, motivated by her desire for us to live in better neighborhoods and own properties one day. My mom never really slept for years; she just took naps between her day and night jobs. Her dedication influenced me deeply, especially when I was about to make bad choices—in those moments, I felt I would be messing up all of her sacrifices. My mom supported me through every actuarial exam, whether I passed or failed. I gave her a copy of my actuarial designation to keep in her house as a symbol of her victory as much as mine.
Something you’ve talked about is “living on purpose.” How do you define that, and what advice would you offer to those struggling to find their purpose?
We all have a unique journey and passions based on our experiences. To find our purpose, we often don’t need to look far. Our personal experiences drive our actions and the causes we choose to defend or fight for. Everyone has a role to play in making the world a better place. My children, for instance, motivate me even more because I desire for them a world far better than the one I grew up in. This connects deeply with my understanding of my mother’s sacrifices for us.
Finding one’s true passion often emerges when we extend ourselves beyond our own lives. This may involve volunteering, donating or simply sharing our time and resources. For those of us in privileged positions, such as actuaries, it’s important to acknowledge our advantages and consider how we can give back. This might mean becoming mentors to others, sponsoring students in need or providing support in areas in which we are skilled. Our purpose often becomes clear when we engage with the world and contribute to causes larger than ourselves.
How do you envision your legacy and the change you wish to inspire in the actuarial profession and beyond?
At this juncture in my life, I feel compelled to give back and inspire the youth from neighborhoods similar to where I grew up. After my encounter with the law as a teen, a police officer who I refer to as “an angel” advised me to focus and succeed in my career so I could eventually inspire and change the narrative about Black youth in our neighborhood.
I am now committed to fulfilling this vision. I have plans to inspire young people in at-risk suburbs in France following the translation of my book into French. I also want to make a difference in Chicago where I live. I recently joined BUILD Chicago’s Associate Board to positively influence the lives of young people on Chicago’s West Side. This step feels like the right opportunity for me at the moment.
Professionally, I lead the actuarial diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) recruiting team at my present employer, collaborating with organizations like Organization Latino Actuaries (OLA), IABA and Morgan State University. Our goal is to diversify the actuarial profession and provide young people from underserved communities the exposure they need to excel as actuaries. I also mentor young Black actuaries, aiming to replicate my success in many lives.
The actuarial journey to fellowship can be challenging. What helped you push through and not give up?
Developing a fighting spirit over the years has been crucial to my journey. I don’t give up easily. But what actually got me here was failure. Failure, rather than discouraging me, has been a significant motivator. Additionally, mentors who reminded me of my strengths and ability to persevere supported me. Having a mentor is invaluable—they provide support when it feels like you have nothing left.
True growth comes from overcoming challenges, not just from constant success. When I achieved my associateship (ASA), I realized I could complete my fellowship if I gave it my all. However, there was a point when I felt exhausted and wanted to pursue other interests. But my motivation to achieve fellowship extended beyond personal ambition. I was pushing the limits to inspire other minorities so they would no longer see getting their fellowship as unattainable. Achieving my fellowship became more about a greater purpose than just getting that title for myself, and that became my ultimate motivation.
What can actuaries do to close the DEI gap in the actuarial profession?
I believe a major reason for the lack of diversity in the actuarial field is the ongoing disparities in education quality in diverse communities. Many underserved areas, notably inner-city neighborhoods, have long been grappling with these educational inequities. The persistent gap in educational resources and support in these communities creates a domino effect, impacting various aspects of life, including people’s professional aspirations.
Addressing these deep-rooted educational disparities is more than an issue of academic fairness; it’s a crucial step toward enriching the actuarial profession with diverse perspectives and experiences. This enrichment not only benefits the individuals from these communities but also enhances the profession as a whole, bringing in varied insights and approaches to problem-solving.
Although tackling these issues is a massive undertaking that goes beyond the capabilities of one individual or organization, actuaries can play a significant role by actively engaging in initiatives that close this diversity gap. Partnering with organizations like the Society of Actuaries (SOA), IABA, OLA and others is crucial. We can support their initiatives, such as the High School Actuarial Day to introduce actuarial science to Chicago Public School students. Additionally, mentoring and tutoring underserved students, through programs like The Actuarial Foundation’s Math Motivators, are tangible ways we can contribute. I encourage actuaries to seek out local opportunities or contact the SOA to discover how they can be part of these positive changes in our profession.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
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