Brian Phan’s parents had a simple, if daunting, plan as they made their way out of poverty in Vietnam back in the early 1990s and moved their young family to Los Angeles.
“Their goal was to allow their kids to do well in school, get good grades if they can, and hopefully accomplish that American dream,” Phan said.
Of course, the Phans had few if any connections in the United States and knew next to no English. Brian’s mother now tells her kids the story of how she learned from the flight attendant on the airplane to L.A. how to apply a diaper to her baby son.
Three decades later, it’s clear that they have achieved their vision of the American dream.
Brian is a transportation engineering associate for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, working on some of the largest infrastructure projects in the city. ASCE has honored him as a 2020 New Face of Civil Engineering.
“They’re very proud of me,” Phan said. “It’s kind of amazing how far we’ve gone – from where we were when we first came to the States.”
‘Dream come true’
Through his work at LADOT, Phan has a role in some of the country’s most innovative light rail and transportation projects.
He’s the project manager for the 5-mile extension of the San Fernando Bike Path. He also serves as the project lead for the L.A. River Bike Path extension, which will play a featured role in the 2028 Summer Olympics.
“These projects all align with our goals here at LADOT – to connect Los Angeles, get people moving and, ultimately, make infrastructure more useful and beneficial to the local community,” Phan said. “It’s a great opportunity to be a project manager, handling a lot of the funding, handling a lot of the project schedules, overseeing the design. As a young engineer, it can be challenging, but we have the enthusiasm and the energy to learn from these projects and develop the skills to make our city a better place to live.
“In order to make big changes in these cities you need to be able to make very tough decisions for the better good. That’s what I really enjoy doing.”
It’s the kind of work that fits perfectly into Phan’s parents’ original vision of the American dream.
“My mom always raised me to be a very kind person, very helpful. We do whatever we can to give back,” Phan said. “When I finished school I always knew I wanted to work in the public. I wanted to be a public servant. I wanted to do things to help people. So landing a position with the LADOT was pretty much a dream come true.
“This is a place I want to be and grow and be a huge part of what Los Angeles becomes.”
Phan’s legacy of volunteer work might be as impressive as his professional success. Now the president of the ASCE Los Angeles Younger Member Forum, he’s served in various leadership positions and been a key cog of the group’s outreach work – especially its massive Engineers Week program for students every year.
Notable among his long list of awards is the “Most Enthusiastic Officer” honor in 2017, though it may be a bit misleading. That, rest assured, was not the only year he was enthusiastic. Phan’s natural state is high-energy positivity.
“There’s no reason to be bitter or down on certain things. It doesn’t do anything,” Phan said. “I’ve always had a very positive attitude. I hope that to be my character.”
It’s especially powerful when applied to helping students.
Phan returned to the neighborhood where he grew up to help the students at his old middle school – Muscatel – several years ago. He started coaching their Science Olympiad team.
“These students are first-generation Americans, their parents barely know English and their parents’ goals almost kind of fell in line with my parents’ goals when we first came over there,” Phan said. “So I was able to give back.”
The students Phan started coaching as sixth- and seventh-graders won the state Science Olympiad championship. They went on to start a civil engineering club at their high school (Rosemead). And many of them now are pursuing engineering degrees at universities around the country.
“I just talked with one of the students I coached,” Phan said. “He’s now at MIT studying chemical engineering. He’s doing well in school. He loves it. He’s very excited to be an engineer in the future. We get lunch every winter break when he comes back from school.
“I don’t think I ever thought I’d be this involved. But these are students that really need your help. K-through-12 outreach has become a huge passion of mine, using ASCE as a huge platform for that.”
Phan has plenty on his plate as springtime approaches. There’s the Engineers Week 2020 event for 800-plus students. There’s the annual Student Job Fair to organize. He also has a groundbreaking ceremony coming up for the San Fernando Bike Path extension project.
Phan shares all of the excitement with his parents, though he admits that he sometimes struggles to communicate all of the engineering ins and outs.
“During dinner, I’ll talk to them about the projects I’ve been working on and what I’m doing,” Phan said. “They still have a very tough language barrier. So from there – it’s great – when they talk to friends and family, it’s just, ‘Brian is working on the city. He’s always doing these amazing projects.’”
That’s more than enough.
“More or less my parents are both retired. They’re enjoying family time and enjoying themselves,” Phan said. “Me and my siblings, we all take care of them. That’s us doing our favor in return for all that they’ve done for us.”