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CALS Alumna Highlight: Christina Criser Jackson

University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences alumna Christina Criser Jackson graduated with her master’s degree from the Family Youth and Community Sciences (FYCS) Department in 2010. She is currently serving as President and CEO of United Way of Central Florida, serving more than 50,000 Central Florida community members each year but shares that her favorite role is being a wife, mother, daughter and granddaughter to an amazing, “Gator loving” family. Christina Criser Jackson was one of seven College of Agricultural and Life Sciences alumni selected as a UF 2020 40 Gators under 40 honoree.

What brought you to CALS and your department? What first sparked your interest in your major?

I attended the University of Florida as an English major and was involved in various extracurricular activities. During my tenure at UF, I found a passion for an organization called Dance Marathon at UF, in which students raise funds and awareness for Children’s Miracle Network at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. The experience exposed me to the nonprofit sector and a career avenue that enabled me to foster collaborations for the greater good so I added a nonprofit organizational leadership minor in CALS. Upon graduation, I returned to pursue my master’s degree in family, youth and community sciences, and I am forever grateful to CALS for allowing me the opportunity to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector.

Was there a particular CALS faculty/staff or mentor that was influential in your career path?

There were numerous CALS faculty and staff that were influential to my career path. Dr. Marilyn Swisher never allowed me to settle. I recently found some of my papers and she was critical in the best way possible. I wish I could take her classes over again since her community studies are so important to the work we are doing for the COVID-19 response. Dr. Carolyn Wilken shared with me valuable lessons to teach and bring awareness to the nonprofit sector. I still utilize portions of her lectures when I present today. Fun fact … we taught Tim Tebow together in her Introduction to Nonprofit class. Dr. Elizabeth Bolton directed me to pursue United Way. She has a love and respect for the nonprofit sector that cannot be matched. She was so kind but firm in ensuring best practices and top-notch principles were being used to lead nonprofit organizations. I truly owe a portion of my career success to her motivation and drive.

What do you find to be the coolest/best part of your job/career?

The absolute coolest part of my career is serving as President and CEO of United Way of Central Florida. Our mission “to improve lives and strengthen the community” allows us to provide the connection between those who want to help with those that need help. We are very fortunate to be able to serve more than 50,000 Central Florida community members each year through our traditional partners in early education, academic achievement, health, financial stability and basic needs. One of my favorite parts of my job is relationship building.

We are proud that one of our partnerships is with Publix Super Markets, Inc. As the lead processor, we are charged with the responsibility of being the liaison between more than 100 local United Ways and their corporate office. In seven states, the Publix associates giving, combined with Publix Super Markets Charities raises more than $63,000,000 for local communities! It is a perfect testament to the rich culture of philanthropy we have here in Lakeland. It does not stop there: Geico, The Mosaic Company, our school systems, hospitals, banks, law firms, for-profit, government entities, and faith leaders are also valuable partners. I am extremely honored to serve and am grateful for the many ways UF and this community has blessed me.

What are some exciting projects you have worked on in the course of your career?

We would have never been able to anticipate the impact United Way of Central Florida would have on the current environment with COVID-19. Over the last few months, our seventeen George Jenkins End Hunger sites have been activated and set up to serve 300 to 400 families at every drop twice a month. Situated strategically throughout Polk County, these sites are giving much-needed food and resources to families impacted financially by the pandemic. Our 2-1-1 service, which is part of our basic needs efforts have been serving more than 4,000 individuals each month, providing referrals to programs and funding to serve their needs. Community members throughout Polk, Highlands, and Hardee are easily connected by dialing 2-1-1 or texting their zip code to 898-211 (2-1-1 serves 98% of the United States).

Recently we were able to accept a $15 million grant from the Polk County BoCC and $1.25 million from Highlands County BoCC to provide direct assistance to families impacted by COVID-19. Eligible clients demonstrated they had been furloughed, laid off or had a decrease in pay due to the pandemic. Over 5,000 families received mortgage, rent, utility, food, childcare, and adult care assistance thanks to our teams. As we move forward, we are preparing to tell the story of our long-term partners in education, income, and health. As our partners continue to pivot and adjust, they will be providing essential services to our community members in need. I am extremely proud of how resilient our team has been over the last few months and grateful we were set up to serve in various capacities. We will continue to provide excellence, creativity and initiative to serve those programs as our community continues to navigate through the pandemic.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in the same major/career path as you?

I would recommend that all students strive to get involved and take advantage of all of the opportunities the University of Florida has available to them. Your college experience is all about finding what drives you to succeed. I would also recommend taking advantage of all the educational opportunities you can afford. My studies have opened doors that I would not have been able to enter if I did not have the educational background that CALS provided. No matter what career path you choose, do it to the fullest. The third recommendation is “you can do it.” My father told me this many times when I could have allowed limiting self-beliefs to creep in. The timing has not always been right, but if I had allowed self-doubt to settle in during certain times in my life, I would not be where I am.

“I never questioned where I would go to college. The University of Florida is home away from home and we, as students and graduates, are part of a unique bond that transcribes over networks and lasts a lifetime. I am so proud to be a Gator. Thank you CALS and the University of Florida!” – Christina Criser Jackson

Family Youth and Community Sciences students gain hands-on experience and knowledge in youth development, youth and family problems, community issues, nonprofit organizations, research methods and program planning and evaluation. The courses teach students theories and methods to enhance the lives of youth, families and communities in which they live. Students will develop the knowledge base to go on to earn advanced degrees in programs such as counseling, non-formal education, social work, Higher Education, and youth and family services. Find a CALS major that suits your interests by taking our majors quiz. You can also find information regarding our undergraduate and graduate programs on our websiteQuestions for Christina Criser Jackson regarding her experiences in the FYCS Department should be directed to  christina.criser@uwcf.org.

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