CJC 40 Gators Under 40

Sarah Criser Elwell

The University of Florida Alumni Association named UF College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) alumna Sarah Criser Elwell as one of its “40 Gators Under 40” for 2024.

Sarah Criser Elwell

Sarah Criser Elwell, B.S. Public Relations 2009, honed her leadership skills in Florida Blue Key, a student honor society, before graduating from the University her grandfather, Marshall Criser Jr., led from 1984-1989.

The UF Alumni Association member went on to earn a master’s of Applied American Politics and Policy from Florida State University in 2011, setting herself up to become CEO of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, a position she’s held since 2016.

Elwell, 37, has never been far from politics or public service, marrying the two at the Forum Club, where she leads Florida’s largest nonpartisan political and public affairs organization comprised of nearly 800 of South Florida’s foremost business, political and community leaders.

In his “40 Gators Under 40” letter of recommendation, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who worked with Elwell on a Forum Club event, wrote of her exemplary “commitment to providing a forum for thoughtful discussion, critical thinking and civic engagement.”

Before working at the Forum Club, Elwell served as senior account executive for Moore Communications Group in West Palm Beach, and as communications director for two members of the U.S. House of Representatives. She also worked as deputy press secretary for Adam Putnam, former commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

UF alumnus Harvey E. Oyer III, partner at Shutts &Bowen LLP in West Palm Beach and a past president of the Forum Club, said Elwell has “the heart of a servant leader. Sarah is a mentor to others and provides mentoring and leadership by example. She is smart, hard-working, is recognized and respected as a community leader, and balances all of this with being a wife and mother.”

Among many honors and awards, Elwell received the Athena Young Professional Award in 2023, given to “emerging women leaders who demonstrate excellence, creativity and initiative in their business or profession” and give their “time and energy to improving the quality of life of others in the community while serving as a role model for young women.”

She was also an American Enterprise Institute Civic Renewal Fellowship mentor and Leadership Florida: Florida Impact Award nominee. While at CJC, she received the Ruth and Rae O. Weimer award in 2009, the College’s highest student honor.

Elwell and her husband, Kevin, live in Palm Beach Gardens with their two daughters and golden retriever.

What are the main factors that have led to your success?

My success is the result of hard work, creative thinking and a desire to make an impact even at an early age. I am lucky to have an incredible support system in my family, who afforded me opportunities to pursue my passions through internships and study abroad programs with CJC, but I’ve always had a drive to be successful and an even bigger aversion to being told “no.” In fact, rejection has at times fueled greater achievement and progress in my career as it has inspired me to dig deeper, work harder and act smarter to obtain my goals. Throughout college, I sought out leadership positions and served organizations that aligned with my passions and gave me critical professional experience — much of which I still use today as CEO of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, Florida’s largest nonpartisan political and public affairs organization. I’ve also been inspired to continue to learn — both in the classroom and through the community organizations I have served.

With these traits, I’ve continued to foster a spirit of collaboration that I believe also contributes to this success. As students and alumni of UF, we have the opportunity to make valuable connections that transcend generations. Gators naturally want to help other Gators succeed and achieve their shared goals. UF’s alumni network is exceedingly strong, and there are always opportunities to collaborate and empower one another to succeed.

Finally, I believe my two daughters are a significant factor in why I persistently fight for those things that matter most to me. I have an incredibly supportive husband who encourages me to pursue my dreams and fantastic female mentors who have ensured I am elevated in the community. With their support, I am accomplishing things I couldn’t have imagined as a young girl. In doing so, I hope that my daughters are similarly inspired to achieve their goals.

Was there a defining moment that led you down the path you chose?

When I was in the College of Journalism and Communications, I had the opportunity to intern at Florida House, the state’s embassy in Washington, D.C. Randy Roberts, a UF alumnus who was Publix’s Government Relations Director at the time, came into the embassy with a few of his colleagues in between meetings on Capitol Hill. While most people used Florida House as a place to take a break or catch up on emails, Randy took a vested interest in the student that I was, asking me about my experience at UF and what I wanted to do with my career. It was this conversation that ultimately led me to explore a career in public service. Upon graduation, I applied for and was selected for a fellowship in the Florida Governor’s Office, which led to a position as Deputy Press Secretary for Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, another UF graduate. I then went on to serve as Communications Director for two Members of Congress before my current role as CEO of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.

What may have seemed like a mundane conversation to some completely changed the trajectory of my career, inspiring a desire to cultivate civic engagement, stimulate thought and promote dialogue. It also underscores why I am passionate about reaching out and taking a vested interest in Florida’s future leaders. You never know how a conversation or experience can change someone’s life, and I am incredibly grateful that I was afforded the opportunity to meet Randy and be inspired and encouraged to pursue the career that I have chosen.

How did your time at CJC help prepare you for success?

While at CJC, I had the opportunity to serve on the Bateman Team, a student group that competed in a prestigious, national public relations student case-study competition. This was one of the first real-world experiences I had drafting a public relations and communications plan for a client. While it gave me valuable insight, it also taught me how to collaborate with a team in a way that I had never had an opportunity to do before. I have served in many communications roles throughout my career, but the core practices we developed and implemented while on the Bateman Team have remained constant, laying the foundation for my success in each of these roles.

What career advice would you give to current CJC students?

So much of what we know – or think we know – comes from our own unique experiences. It shapes the way we think, the way we talk and the way we communicate. However, to be effective and successful in whatever career you choose, you must be willing to listen. When navigating a complex issue, the person who speaks the loudest is not the most effective. It’s the one who listens the most. There will be many situations throughout your career where you will have to make difficult decisions or navigate challenging circumstances. While you will not always appease everyone, a level of mutual respect develops and grows when others feel their opinions are heard.

As CEO of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches, I navigate both internal and external communications challenges daily. I find I am most successful when I approach situations from a place of learning, wanting to better understand why various people feel the way they do and using that knowledge to formulate the best path forward. At the University of Florida, you have an incredible opportunity to meet and interact with a diverse group of individuals from across the world. Seek out conversations with people who have different experiences from yours, and don’t be afraid to have conversations with people who have different viewpoints. Often, these are the people who will teach you the most.

Why is it important for alumni to give back to the College?

My time at CJC was some of the most formative years in my life – both personally and professionally. I was afforded many opportunities by other alumni, and it is because of this that I feel so passionate about creating opportunities for Gators now that I can do so. Giving back isn’t just about financial commitments – although those are critical to the College’s mission. They can include time, talent and mentorship. CJC continues to be one of the best in the nation, setting the standard for communications professionals. As CJC alumni, it is imperative that we continue to open doors and provide students and young alumni experiences, just as we were given, as this is critical to cultivating the next generation of Gator greats.

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