Susan Rowghani: Reflections on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month


Dawn Cotterell

Susan (neé Nakagawa) Rowghani is the Director of the Water Engineering Technical Services (WETS) Division, responsible for overseeing the engineering, design and project management for nearly $300 million in capital projects. Under Susan’s direction, WETS is considered the jewel of LADWP’s Water System, highly regarded by other utilities for its efficient and effective project delivery.  She recently sat down with us as part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month to reflect upon her culture and experiences growing up in Chicago as a third-generation Japanese-American.

Susan’s parents, second generation Japanese-Americans, met each other in Chicago after being at Japanese internment camps in Arkansas and Idaho during World War II.  Her parents settled in Chicago along with others who were relocated from the internment camps following the war.  There, the Nakagawa’s started a family and raised their two daughters, Susan and her younger sister Nancy.  Among Susan’s childhood memories, she remembers spending Saturday mornings going to Japanese school with her sister – a weekly obligation because her parents wanted her to learn about their culture, language and history.

“I enjoyed learning about my culture, but unfortunately, I didn’t retain the language,” said Susan. “It was important to my parents, but as a child, I also missed watching cartoons on Saturday mornings,” she joked.

Susan’s father, a mechanical engineer, advised her to be practical and get a degree in something that would ensure she could land a job and support herself.  She intended to major in liberal arts, not engineering.  At 18, Susan entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about 135 miles south of Chicago. Living in the middle of cornfields, she adapted to her new environment which was a big departure from city living.  Her roommate at the University, an enthusiastic engineering student, convinced Susan to consider engineering as well.

“My parents impressed upon me the importance of doing well in school, reminding me to work hard and put effort toward getting good grades,” said Susan.

Susan was recruited on campus by LADWP during her senior year and she moved to Los Angeles after graduating with a degree in civil engineering. She was excited about the move, seeing it as an adventure that would allow her to discover a new big city while starting her career.

“I thought I would take a chance, stay a few years at LADWP and see how it goes,” said Susan. “One of my first positions was at Mono Lake where I spent the summer conducting surveys in a boat – it was so beautiful! After that, I knew I would stay.”

Reflecting back on her career, Susan says her culture influenced her management style because it taught her the importance of hard work, and to prioritize the needs of the group over those of the individual.  That approach was particularly important in WETS, where teamwork and collaboration are fundamental to timely project delivery. Over the course of her career, Susan’s personality and management style have set her apart as a leader and mentor within LADWP’s Water System and the water industry.

After 37 years at LADWP, Susan is looking forward to retiring in June 2019 and dedicating time to her hobbies which include cooking, gardening and travel. Among her travel plans is a return visit to Japan where she once visited with her parents to meet relatives, but this time with more time to explore.