Maria Choca Urban, A.M. 1983
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer at Cook County Bureau of Administration
“I went to SSA thinking that I was getting a sheepskin and nothing more. I thought I knew it all, and I was angry at my employer because he would not promote me to a higher position until I had a master’s degree,” recalls Maria Choca Urban. “So I said fine, I’ll play the game and get the degree. When I started at SSA, I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn, and soon discovered that my program was designed in such a way to make sure that I had everything I needed to succeed.”
Ms. Urban was born in Cuba and raised in Chicago. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, she went to work for the Traveler’s Aid Society as a caseworker.
“I was on the job almost two years when the Mariel Boat Lift began in 1980, and my boss asked if there was anyone interested in helping the federal government resettle these new refugees. I was very interested because of my personal history, and so I signed up and became the first staff person for the new Cuban Resettlement Program. After a year of being the only staff person, the program had grown large enough to need more staff. I threw my hat in the ring to run the program.” Ms. Urban was told that without a higher degree, she was not going to advance beyond her current level. “That is when I started looking at master’s degree programs in the city, and found SSA. When their acceptance came through, along with a generous offer of financial help, it made my decision easy. Plus, I believed there is no reputation better in the city than the U of C.”
Her first year at SSA was difficult, and Ms. Urban recalls occasionally feeling like a “fish out of water.” But, SSA faculty made themselves available to help her understand concepts, and structure research papers. She soon hit her stride and became an exceptional student. “When I was about to graduate, I became aware of a fellowship in government. Faculty member Pastora Cafferty (Pastora San Juan Cafferty, Ph.D.) encouraged me to apply as she was on the selection committee. I later found out that she excused herself from voting because she said she knew me too well, and could not be unbiased.” Ms. Urban was awarded the prestigious fellowship and spent a year working for the City of Chicago Department of Planning. “I found that working for the public sector was an energizing and satisfying career path for me.” She was then hired by the City and worked her way into a position where 60-hour workweeks were the norm. “Because I was married with a newborn baby and needed more time at home, I left the job in 1990.”
Over the next 14 years, she raised four children and helped her husband build his personal financial planning practice. By 2004, she was ready to return to the workplace. Through networking with friends and old colleagues, she discovered Chicago Metropolis 2020 and became its program director for such areas as land use and transportation, with a special focus on the freight industry. “If anyone had told me that I would be involved with freight and need to know how packages get from one place to another, I would have said they were crazy. But this is where my SSA education proved invaluable. I was prepared to be a problem solver and examine a problem within a context, and not in isolated parts. SSA helped prepare me to gather and interpret data, and to let the data determine how you frame the issue, and how you think about addressing the issue. That is what I did.”
After three years with Metropolis 2020, Ms. Urban felt ready to move on to the next challenge, and a role with the Chicago Transit Authority opened up. “The CTA has many problems and my expertise was directed to the daily operations of our internal consulting group that oversees company performance, reviewing and setting policy, and developing strategic plans to make improvements throughout the system.”
“SSA had a lot to offer me. Pastora Cafferty’s encouragement to seek the fellowship in government changed my career direction. SSA’s reputation is huge, and having that on my resume immediately distinguishes me.”
After the CTA, Ms. Urban joined the Chicago Center for Neighborhood Technology as Program Director, Transportation and Community Development. She then became Director of Planning and Development with the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development before taking on her current role as Deputy Chief Administrative Officer at the Cook County Bureau of Administration.
Ms. Urban is a member of Leadership Greater Chicago, a board member of the Interfaith Housing Council of the Northern Suburbs, as well as a board member of the Association House of Chicago. She has held numerous positions on the Wilmette, Illinois, school board, including president. She is also a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society.