On the day following the results of the 2016 presidential election, I met with Kathi Cowen, CFM of Central. While everyone else either rejoiced or lamented the new Trump presidency, we spoke instead about her life as a woman in Central, as a student, a mother, and a professional.
As a student, Cowen displayed responsibility and maturity atypical to teenage years. She graduated as valedictorian in her high school class. Instead of attending her high school senior trip, she explained that she chose to stay at her summer job; however, she did admit some regret for that decision, wondering why she was in such a hurry to grow up and “be an adult.” The summer after she graduated, she took some courses at the LSU summer drafting institute. “Back when I went to high school, there wasn’t as much emphasis on having to get a college degree to get a good job. There were a lot more of the trade type jobs,” she explained, “Today, you almost have to have a college degree to get your foot in any door.”
She attended college for a year at LSU but still felt unsure of her path; so, she got a job in drafting, which she pursued for several years. Three years later, she married her husband, and they soon after had their first child. As she began to work for civil engineers, designing subdivisions, Cowen and her husband raised three children. “You just have to figure out how to make all that work,” she said, “It’s just something you do as a woman.”
In the years between her initial college experience and her degree completion, Cowen enjoyed her time working with GIS mapping. “I love the mapping,” she said, “It’s kind of a continuation of my engineering background.” As she worked, she was a bit dumbfounded at the amount of women in her field. “The engineering part, well it’s becoming more mixed as far as female engineers, but it’s still, unbelievably at this time, basically a man’s world out there,” she said, “it doesn’t need to be. Women are just as capable as having that logical mind that most engineers have. I just don’t see them going into it as much. I don’t know why. Even the drafting side of it, I was pretty much the only female for lots and lots of jobs that I had. It was predominantly a male world, but I was okay with that. I felt like I fit right in with the guys,” Cowen added, “I was really fortunate to find the boss that I worked for. He was unusual in the sense that he didn’t see gender as an issue. If you were smart enough to do the job, he gave you the responsibility.”
Cowen put her degree on hold until her second child also started college. “I loved it,” she began, “every minute of it. It was a really fun experience going back to college in my forties, early forties, as opposed to your twenties. I think I appreciated a lot more, and frankly, it was a lot easier because by then you’ve learned management skills, and you know how to balance family, work, and school.” Kathi Cowen wanted to earn her degree for her own self-fulfillment, not for any particular career goal. “I just wanted to say I was a college graduate before I croaked,” she chuckled, “And, it has led to other things… the fact that I’m a floodplain manager today would not have happened if I hadn’t had a college degree.”
Kathi’s position as CFM is no accident. Growing up, her parents impressed upon her the importance of community involvement. Though initially her mother stayed at home with she and her siblings, she took a job as a secretary at their school when they began middle school. “She was a very hands-on mom,” Cowen said, “and Dad was a school teacher and coach.” Her father retired from 20 years of service in public schools and became the principal at Central Private. “My dad was probably our hero, our role model,” she said, “He was a very loving, very caring parent. Although people who knew him as a principal didn’t see that side of him, they saw the stern disciplinary.” With a warm smile gracing her features, she finished, “We had a really idyllic childhood with parents that loved us and took care of us and made sure we were safe.”
Her desire to work within her community grew as she did. “I did want to be involved with the city even before I worked here,” she said, “In 2005, we became a city, which I voted for. I know a lot of people are like ‘I didn’t support this city,’ but I did because I felt like it was a chance for us to take control of our own development issues.” In the same year, she attended the first City Council meeting and applied for a position on the first planning commission. “I think it’s important for people to get involved and see how things work as opposed to just sitting back and complaining about how things are done. I think it’s kind of counterproductive to sit back and gripe about it.” She eventually resigned from the planning commission to avoid a conflict of interest after the company for which she worked signed on as city services for Central.
Needless to say, the last few months of post flood work have been her greatest professional challenge. She had just accepted the position of CFM in June, in addition to her work with GIS mapping. “It’s been a very challenging three months having to navigate through this unprecedented event,” she said, “but I think we’re doing it. I think we’re doing a good job. It’s been very challenging, very emotionally draining having to deal with people who have lost everything and don’t know where to go.” Moreover, she and her husband also received two feet of flood damage in their house. “He was able to take off work and do a lot of the heavy lifting, so to speak,” she explained, “but for weeks I had to just ignore our mess to be up here seven days a week… It’s been difficult for everybody. We not only had to deal with our own office flooding and losing documents. We lost our computers. You know, we had to start over, but at the same time we had to be available to help everybody else who was having to start over.” She added, “I think the experience has brought us all closer. Everybody’s been really willing to do what needs to be done and get us through this.”
Each woman I have interviewed received their list of questions prior to the interview to allow for adequate time to reflect on certain questions, of which were several questions on leadership, which Cowen initially brushed off. “When I read that question I thought *pftt, I don’t think of myself as a leader,” she said, “I’m not a leader. But now, I think have a different perspective on it after the last three months,” she continued, “of what leadership qualities are and how a person becomes a leader in a situation like what we’ve been through the last three months, sort of by accident in some ways. I would have never have thought of myself as a leader, but when you’re faced with a crisis and you just have to… every part of your being is saying ‘I don’t want to deal with this, I want to just go home and not have to think about this stuff.’ But you don’t do that. You put your thinking cap on and you go to work and you work really hard and you try to make good decisions, and maybe in the end that’s what a leader does. I don’t think I’m a leader,” Cowen finished, “but I think the last few months have shown that when push comes to shove, I can step up.”
Though her family’s support has been especially integral the last few months, Cowen has always derived great strength from her family and her home. I asked Cowen how she has managed to balance a healthy marriage and family life while pursuing a career. “Sometimes I wonder how we did it,” she replied, citing her excellently behaved children as example for some of the ease she experienced. “It is very challenging for young women with families to have to balance having a career, being taken seriously at work and still being able to balance taking care of your kids,” she said, “and, as a good mom, that’s of paramount importance, that you take care of your family too.”
Now that her children have grown and started having children of their own, Kathi has embraced her own self care-more fully, in the form of traveling. “My best friend has Parkinson’s now,” she explained, “and it got me thinking, you know, here I am in this extremely healthy body, lucky to have been given the genetics that I have, mid-fifties, that I’m still very healthy and very strong. Why am I not doing something with that? Why am I not getting out there?” She decided to spend a week, backpacking through the desert with a group called the Sierra club. “It’s awesome,” she said, “I would like to do more and see more. Why let that go and wait? Not too many years from now I might not be able to do things like that…”
Kathi also applies this sense of “carpe diem” to her definition of success. Though we did not discuss the election in any great detail, she noted the significance of our citizenship as Americans and the opportunities that are presented before us in this country, which we must grasp at the helm. “Success is being responsible and being a good adult, taking care of your family, taking care of yourself, taking care of what you need to do to have a good life, and we’re fortunate that we live in America on this historic day,” Kathi began, “Who knows what the next four years will bring? At the end of the day, we’re fortunate to be Americans because we get to do what we want to do and make choices for our lives and make career choices and family choices and where to live and how to live and what to eat. There’s a lot of people across this whole world that don’t have that. They don’t get to choose… We <were> born to prosperity in some respects in a country that’s prosperous where we get to be prosperous. That’s part of being successful, appreciating that and not squandering it.”
In a society that seems to demand a college education in a traditional fashion, Cowen has succeeded in building a life for herself without relying on the traditional means and timing of higher education. As she reflected on her mindset as a young person, she said, “Maybe I would have told my eighteen year old self to not be in such a hurry to grow up and be an adult,” she chuckled, “But, what are you going to tell an eighteen year old. They know everything, right?”