student Spotlight

August Student Spotlight with Maria Cruz Lee, Executive MPA ‘20


Maria Cruz Lee is a public sector strategist who helps organizations with digital, events, operations and branding. She was Digital Marketing Director at the City University of New York, building and managing the University-wide Digital Council, and is now Digital Marketing Director at City & State NY.

Congratulations for your 2018 ‘40 Under 40’ nod from City & State. Tell us about that experience.
Thank you! Being included in City & State Magazine’s 2018 40 under 40 Rising Stars was such an honor. It was really great to be in a room full of the next set of leaders across this city, surrounded by our friends, families, peers and mentors. City & State Magazine included a diverse set of individuals from different sectors and standing shoulder to shoulder with them was a great reminder that there is lots of work to do in NYC and we are able to work cross-sector to make a difference. It was also pretty cool to see an impromptu beatbox performance from our now-Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr.

What was it like growing up in the Philippines, and then making the transition to America?
My childhood in the Philippines was filled with memories of family, school, and church. One significant factor was that until I was 7, I only knew my mom and dad through the phone. I knew they were in New York, but didn’t know them until I landed at JFK in February of 1993. Making the transition to America was extremely difficult, especially when my immigrant parents, who grew up under martial law in the the Philippines were extremely against the idea of government. The fact that I ended up with this career in the public service is a testament to the risk they took to move our family to the states and anchors my commitment to making sure New York City is welcoming to immigrants.

You worked for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2016. Can you tell us about that experience working at the intersection of politics and technology? How did you and your peers deal with the outcome?
I had the honor to serve the Hillary Clinton Campaign as the Millennials Digital Coalitions Desk at headquarters and as the New York State Digital Director. I helped with outreach to students, millennials, and rural Americans and ran the first-ever “Text Out the Vote” volunteer centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The magnitude of what we were doing in the General Election was never lost on me and I was thankful to show up to work with extremely dedicated individuals who were incredibly committed to our country and our candidate. From digital war rooms during the Presidential debates, surrogate messaging, collaborations with coalition groups, and running Club GOTV where we had a DJ every night leading up to election day, I absolutely learned a lifetime’s worth of skills. This public school girl from South Ozone Park who graduated from Forest Hills High School and Hunter College, was definitely taken aback at the opportunity to be on the same team as Ivy League graduates and distinguished politicos, grateful to have had the chance to be on the right side of history together.

As for the loss in 2016, we’re all still dealing with the outcome in different ways. I’ll speak for myself: I decided that going local and tangible was the way I was going to continue fighting. Immediately after the campaign, I briefly joined First Lady Chirlane McCray’s team as her Scheduler. During that time I participated in trainings from New American Leaders, Women of Color in Progress and the 21 for ‘21 Initiative. Working with my local State Assemblywoman, Nily Rozic and her incredible right hand, Marilla Li, I was thinking through what a run for office would entail. Especially in this political climate, I believed the most impact can be seen on the local level. Unfortunately life took a turn and I wasn’t able to stay in the district I wanted to run in, so those plans are on hold.

“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”—Hillary Clinton, 2016

Why did you choose the Marxe School and how has your time here been thus far?
Fatima Shama (Executive MPA ‘08) is the main reason I chose the Executive MPA program at Baruch Marxe. I was her Special Assistant during her time as the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs under the Bloomberg Administration and didn’t realize how much Baruch was ingrained into her leadership until I started as part of this year’s cohort. At each point I was about to make a significant life transition, part of the conversation would always include her nudging me to consider getting my MPA at Baruch. To be honest, I was very resistant to the idea of attending graduate school, but more than halfway through my first year of this program, I have to say, this has been one of the best decisions of my life. I’m getting the structure, theory and background to succeed in public service. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the program after almost a decade in the public sector because now I’m able to reference real-world examples when our professors present us with theories and concepts.

I am a very proud member of Cohort 35 and look forward to all the impactful work we’ll do together going forward. I could not have asked for a better set of individuals to learn with and from.