Arminé Chaparyan’s story is an immigrant’s tale that many people likely would conclude is proof that the American dream of succeeding through education, a supportive family and hard work is still alive.
Chaparyan achieved her dream of becoming a city manager in May when she was named to that position in South Pasadena.
Parents Panos and Endza brought 9-year-old Chaparyan, her 11-year-old brother Aram and 4-year-old brother Arman to the United States from Armenia in 1987 — a time of political unrest in that country, which was a republic under the Moscow-centric Soviet Union. Travel during the communist era was very restrictive, so all they could take were a few suitcases.
Her parents wanted to raise their family in a democracy and to give their children a good education. They settled, like many immigrants, near relatives — in this case, Panos’ brother in Pasadena.
“We left almost everything behind because it was tough bringing things with us,” Arminé Chaparyan recalled in a recent interview. “My parents were well educated, but they had to take whatever jobs they could get. There were hardships. When we arrived, I didn’t speak English.
“My mother was an educator in Armenia and my father was in the legal industry,” she said, noting that their credentials were not accepted in the U.S. at the time. “Upon immigration, they took on any jobs to make ends meet.”
When she was enrolled in 4th grade, she and brother Aram would write down words in a notebook and then look up the translation. By the end of the year, she was able to speak words and phrases. By 7th grade, she was in honors English.
The Chaparyans lived in a small, single-family rental home, but she recalls Pasadena as being a welcoming melting pot of fellow immigrants.
“The struggle was real, and we were so blessed to be surrounded by a community that embraced us and helped us achieve our highest potential,” Chaparyan said. “From mentors to educators who took an interest in our family, we were surrounded by kind, humble people.”
Chaparyan describes herself as a child of the city’s public schools. She attended Jefferson Elementary School, Washington Middle School and John Muir High School, where she was Associated Student Body president when she graduated in 1996. She was naturalized as an American citizen when she turned 18.
She went on to UCLA — where she helped put herself through school by working two jobs, including one at Vroman’s Bookstore — and then earned a master’s degree in public administration from USC. She met her husband, Rouben Varozian, an attorney, at UCLA. Her parents always told their children that education was a key to success, she said, and doors have opened for all three children.
The City Management Foundation reported that Aram — city manager of Torrance since October — and Arminé are the first brother-sister city manager pair in California history. Their brother Arman is in the entertainment industry, using his music management skills, and has been around the world a few times, touring with a British band. He helps manage the tours and also focuses heavily on environmental sustainability.
Arminé Chaparyan said their immigrant background was a pivotal factor for herself and Aram in working in the public sector, because they wanted to give back to the community
“I do believe in giving back,” Chaparyan said. “A lot of kids and members of the community can relate to our struggles. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
One person she turns to for advice, and vice versa, is Aram.
“It helps that we are in the same industry,” she said, adding that she always looked up to her older brother and considers him a best friend.
Chaparyan has 15 years of experience in municipal government. She served as a redevelopment manager in Santa Clarita and a senior project manager in Ontario, and then became community development director in nearby San Gabriel in 2014.
When the South Pasadena city manager job came open, Chaparyan applied. She was one of two finalists, but the other was announced as the winner.
And then he wasn’t. The City Council ultimately rescinded its initial offer after pushback from residents who decried the selection in light of the circumstances surrounding his resignations from previous positions. The job was then Chaparyan’s.
“There were a lot of mixed emotions,” she said. “I knew I was ready for the next step. I had done my homework. I knew the job was not going to be a walk in the park.
“I knew I was coming in at a tough time,” Chaparyan added, noting that COVID-19’s fourth surge had put the community back on edge. “There are challenges, but this is our new reality whether we like it or not.”
Many of the challenges, she found, were within City Hall. Chaparyan said that almost from the first day, she heard about a “disconnect” between the community and its municipal government. People said the government was slow to respond to permit requests and to phone calls.
“There are significant opportunities to look at things holistically,” she said. “I want to build a team and reset things. The No. 1 priority is to get back to the basics of good government. The last 18 months have been hard on the city, and we want to hit the reset button.”
Chaparyan has another priority — to get around to all parts of the city. She feels her story will resonate within the community. In a session with the Friends of the Library, she talked about her long hours studying as a girl in the Pasadena Public Library and how she later helped build such a facility in Santa Clarita.
“It is a pleasure to work with Arminé,” said Mayor Diana Mahmud. “She has a lot of poise and energy and is no shy flower, but personable. I think all are necessary to lead city staff through yet another city manager, acting or otherwise.”
Mahmud noted that attrition continues to hamper City Hall operations. The city’s planning director and human resources director are both departing. Elaine Aguilar, who has served as the acting assistant city manager and finance director, is leaving in September.
“Fortunately,” the mayor added, “Arminé has a lot of contacts, and has drawn upon them to find folks who can fill positions on a temporary basis, for which I am very grateful.”
Chaparyan has contacts, but she admits that despite all the good things in the city — which, she points out, are abundant — she is having difficulty attracting what she called “top tier talent.”
“All they have to do is Google,” she said, “and a lot of things pop up.”
On top of this hiring process, those “things” include the departure of her predecessor, Stephanie DeWolfe, long-standing accounting issues with the Finance Department that played a role in DeWolfe’s exit, last year’s political scandal in which a councilwoman resigned after admitting to using an anonymous email account to submit public comments criticizing residents, and allegations of improper conduct or use of excessive force by the South Pasadena Police Department.
“There is a lot of good going on here,” Chaparyan said, noting what she called “new energy” between her and the council, which introduced three new members in December. “We’ve got to reshape the image.
“We’ve got to tackle the backlog of applications with the Planning Department, which is a consistent complaint; we’ve got to improve services to residents and we’ve got to fix that disconnect to residents,” she continued. “One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard is that people don’t know who to reach at City Hall and they can’t reach people when they call.”
With all of these situations to tackle — in collaboration with the council that hired her — Chaparyan has a lot of long hours ahead of her. That makes being a working mother of three children — ages 12, 9 and 5 — even more of a juggling act. Here again, many might view her as a role model for others. Relatives and her husband provide help, and she takes her children to a lot of community events.
“I love being a mom and I do the best I can. I’m not a perfect mom. I do the best I can,” she said. “Being a mom also makes me better at what I do at work. I’m better able to understand staff and the work-life balance they are going through.”
Like many moms during the shutdown, Chaparyan had to help her children with their Zoom homework. Her 3rd-grader was studying grammar, and mom sometimes was stumped.
“I skipped 3rd grade. I went from 2nd to 4th, so I never officially learned grammar,” she explained. “So there I was, studying grammar along with my 3rd grader.”