Gator Sarah Kaiser-Cross (BA ’11), who was featured in a 2019 film, reflects on how her UF journey shaped her dreams and her destinations.
Sarah Kaiser-Cross, one of the subjects of the 2019 documentary film “Most Likely to Succeed” (directed by award-winning photographer Pamela Littky), practically bubbles off the screen — at first glance a typical South Florida teenager from an affluent, beachy suburb, right down to her pink tank top and designer jeans.
Her aqua bedroom walls are plastered with photos of fun times with friends and peppy motivational quotes. She and her doting parents laugh together as they pack endless piles of clothes for her move to the University of Florida. But where the lens lingers, deeper layers are revealed. The aspirational note taped to her mirror: “First Woman President.” What she says to the camera in the early moments of the film, with confident directness: “I think it’d be nice to have a female leader in the United States, to promote peace … for once.”
The intense need to examine her own faith, and those of others, despite being the child of two Christian pastors.
“I want to understand every religion because it’s such a big part of how people define themselves,” she said then, at the very beginning of a life defined by challenging expectations and assumptions.
Kaiser-Cross (BA ’11) is now 32 years old and working as an associate director in financial crime risk for global banking giant HSBC, a U.S.-based job she landed after first working with the company in Dubai.
She studied in Israel and Egypt over four semesters while at UF — an enlightening path she credits to mentorship in the study abroad program by Martin McKellar (MS ’84, PhD ’88), as well as insights gained from African politics instructor Joseph Kraus (MA ’07, PhD ’10).
“My first decision to study abroad was on a whim, so I went to Martin and told him I didn’t know anything about anywhere, but I didn’t want to do Europe. So, I ended up going to Israel, and that summer changed my life. I’ll forever be grateful for his guidance.”
Kaiser-Cross graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UF and earned a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship in Turkey, then dual master’s degrees in Middle Eastern studies and global policy studies at the University of Texas. She speaks Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish; has journeyed to nearly 30 countries; and moved back to the States in January 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic ended what had been a whirlwind phase of travel and exploration — both outward and inward.
She credits her parents for their unwavering encouragement of her drive to question norms, her experiences serving as one of UF’s Cicerone student ambassadors and, yes, that fluke starring role in a documentary, with preparing her to take on challenges and seek spiritual and intellectual growth.
“I would absolutely do it again,” Kaiser-Cross says of the film, which followed four high-achieving students with diverse backgrounds and interests from 2007 to 2017. “It has been one of the most beautiful avenues for self-reflection. How many people get to watch their values and perspectives and relationships change over 10 years?
“Every year, Pam would ask, what does success mean to you? And every year from age 18 to 28, I took time to reflect on that and how it translated to happiness. It became almost a cornerstone every year to check in and say, am I being true to what I believe to be a success?”
A Chance Meeting, a Life-Changing Choice
Kaiser-Cross of Naples was competing in a high school scholarship program when a substitute judge took note of her superlatives. The judge happened to be Littky’s father, and he mentioned the film to Kaiser-Cross. Would she be interested in participating?
“I said, life is short, let’s go for it,” says Kaiser-Cross. “It was an act of fate.”
“Sarah was a great subject from the outset,” says Littky. “What was so incredible for me as a filmmaker was watching her blossom and grow. At 18 years old, I remember her being ambitious, motivated and curious about the world, and she is still all of that. She has matured in a really beautiful way, which was a fascinating journey to watch. I always felt like I personally learned from her thoughts and her take on life, so I felt the audience would connect with her as well.”
Now, 14 years past those early moments of “Most Likely to Succeed,” Kaiser-Cross is herself able to view the documentary — and her own formative years — with wider and more mature vision. In the film, she and Peter are the white kids from comfortable, two-parent households while Charles and Quay, both African-American, come from less stable homes in Detroit and face significant personal and economic hurdles.
“It was very challenging for me to watch [in the film] how unaware I was about my own privilege,” says Kaiser-Cross. “I had never traveled, and I was very insulated in my world. As people are watching, especially those who are racially privileged, I hope this can be an invitation for people to reflect on their privilege and an opportunity to build more equitable and inclusive communities.”
Kaiser-Cross says travel was key in expanding her understanding of racism and marginalized populations not only in foreign lands, but especially back home.
“The discussions I had about race and politics outside of the U.S. were very informative, especially for things like Black Lives Matter — we have a very unique national history that needs to be addressed,” she says. “We all, honestly, have a moral responsibility to ask ourselves the hard questions. Are you showing up and living your values?”
Back in Florida
Kaiser-Cross says though she was abroad and missed the film’s premiere when the cast gathered, she has since had a Zoom meeting with Peter, Charles and Quay — the first time all four had talked. Their identities were kept secret from one another during filming.
“It’s a cool bond,” she says of the group. “We’ve all changed and grown. Everyone seems to be at peace with their choices. And maybe that’s the thing — keep reevaluating your definition of success.”
Next steps for Sarah? She recently moved back to Florida, continuing her work for HSBC bank from her parents’ home in Naples as the pandemic continued to unfold, while planning a move to Florida’s east coast.
In the film, she muses on being secretary of state someday, though she says to Littky on camera, “Don’t put that in there or it won’t come true!”
“I think public service is a really beautiful way to be a voice for the community and to advocate for people and improve their lives,” she says now. “Right now, the extremes of the political environment are troubling. I no longer think politics is the only vehicle for change, but it’s still a critical cornerstone. It would be such an honor to be able to fight for a community and ensure that everybody’s voices are heard.”
And you can bet there will be plenty of visits back to Gainesville now that she’s returned to Florida.
“I was there the year we won back-to-back national [football] championships, and everyone crowded onto the streets, the firefighters came out to celebrate and do Gator chants, people were climbing trees and had banners — it was one of the most fun moments ever in college. The Gator culture brings everyone together. And I’m still a huge football fan.”
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