It’s hard for people to speak their criticisms of it. It’s difficult for students not involved to admit they are not. The Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon has created a “THON culture” on University Park’s campus, according to some.
About 15,000 students are involved with the student-run philanthropy, but even those involved in the organizations that have raised more than $89 million for the Four Diamonds Fund, are hesitant to voice concerns.
Thirty-six people were asked to be interviewed for this story. Fifteen were willing to be quoted.
Though fewer than 40 percent of University Park students participate in THON, the “THON culture” can be a dominating force, making it difficult for some to say that they’re not involved, Christian Backus said.
Backus (sophomore-chemical engineering) has never participated in THON, but when people from outside the Penn State community ask him about his involvement, he wavers on admitting the truth.
“I almost feel bad when I say ‘no,’ ” Backus said.
Bobby Thompson expressed a similar sentiment. Although during his first years on campus Thompson (senior-print journalism) ran the THON 5k, he said, “[I] was never really big into THON.” Now in his senior year, he said he does feel “slightly embarrassed” he isn’t as involved, adding that at times, people will try to make him feel ashamed that he isn’t.
But THON Overall Chairman Will Martin said those involved do not try to pressure people who do not want to participate.
“THON is strictly a volunteer organization,” Martin (senior-communications sciences and disorders) said via email. “We encourage volunteers to join THON only if they are interested. We support all organizations on campus. THON only wants to respect all Penn State students whether they participate or not.”
To Jake Zenker, THON is a great philanthropy and is meant to be for a great cause, but people can join for the wrong reasons, he said.
“There are true purposes to THON that are meaningful. It’s a great and positive thing,” Zenker (senior-meteorology) said. “But in many instances it has become more of a social obligation than a philanthropy for so many.”
But Martin said via email that THON volunteers’ priority is not socially rooted.
“THON's mission is to support the Four Diamonds Fund and the fight against pediatric cancer,” he said. “Our volunteers work together to create this yearlong effort of support, awareness and fundraising. This is the priority of our volunteers.”
Martin also said he has never heard any criticisms of THON in person, but through email has heard some. Mainly, though, these emails are from people who don’t understand what THON is, he said.
Though Martin said some people do become involved with THON for reasons other than solely raising money for the Four Diamonds Fund, he said they still care about THON’s overall goal.
“The purpose of THON should and always will be to support the Four Diamonds Fund,” he said. “I feel deep down [people who join for other reasons] are in it for the right reasons.”
Zenker also feels THON’s popularity can overpower other cancer-related philanthropies on campus.
As the totals for THON climb, Maddy Pryor, overall public relations chair for Relay For Life, said fundraising efforts for Relay For Life have declined in the past few years, though this 2012-13 fundraising year has seen improvement.
Members of other campus cancer organizations also feel the pressure of THON.
Heather Hoffman, vice president of Coaches vs. Cancer, an organization that raises funds for the American Cancer Society through the varsity basketball teams, said her organization feels THON’s pressure when reaching out to local businesses to ask for donations. She said many already donate to THON and, consequently, have no leftover funds to donate.
Yet, Martin said via email that there is often crossover between THON participants and those in other cancer charities.
Despite THON’s presence, Pryor said she holds no negativity toward THON and even participates in a THON organization herself. When she initially found out that she was not selected to dance this year, she was upset, but later realized that she now has the opportunity to spend the entire weekend with her organization’s family.
“I had to give myself a reality check,” she said.
Kenya Crawford, president of Keep a Child Alive Penn State Student Chapter, said her nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting those with HIV/AIDS in primarily Africa and India can sometimes feel the pressure of THON, as well.
Crawford (sophomore-human development and family studies) said she chose not to become involved with THON because she wanted to help other children in the world. She also said that she noticed there was a bigger need on campus to become involved in Keep a Child Alive, because so many others are involved in THON.
And though Laura O’Brien became involved with THON her freshman year because she believes in what the organization stands for, she said she did not have it take over her college life.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart if I’m not involved in THON,” she said.
O’Brien (sophomore-division of undergraduate studies) said she wants her time at Penn State to be career oriented, adding that the time commitment involved with a THON organization was too much for her.
“There’s more to Penn State than THON,” she said. “You should want to pursue something you have a passion for.”
Jake Graham (sophomore-architectural engineering) also expressed a similar feeling. He said that being an architectural engineering major makes it hard to find any spare time. Right now, he said he is more concerned with his own future, adding that when he has secured a career and is making a living, then he will donate to charity.
“[THON] is not in the description of being a Penn State student,” he said.
But Martin said those who become involved in THON do not need to commit all of their free time to the organization.
Some students, like Katie Genovese, however, have unsuccessfully tried to join THON later in their college career when they had more time. When Genovese (junior- psychology)looked into joining a special interest organization her sophomore year, she said she felt people were “gung ho” about THON and she could never imagine being like them. She also said that if she were to now try and join an organization that’s sole purpose is THON fundraising, she would be looked down upon for not joining sooner.
But Martin said those involved with THON strive to welcome all into their community.
THON doesn’t just require a commitment from individuals, Zenker said. THON has the potential to take over organizations that aren’t initially about THON, such as club sports and other professional organizations. He also said the process of electing THON officials and dancers in these organizations “becomes very political.” He said people become upset when they’re not elected to these positions.
“[THON] weekend becomes about the dancers, not the kids,” he said.
Yet, Martin said this is not the purpose of THON — rather it is for the kids.
“The purpose of THON Weekend is to culminate a year raising awareness and funds for the Four Diamonds Fund but to also give the Four Diamonds children a weekend to forget about cancer and feel like a kid again,” he said.
And Cat Powers, THON public relations chairwoman, said THON is open to criticism, because it’s a continually evolving organization.
“We’re always looking to get better and get more effective,” Powers (senior-public relations) said.