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10 Questions with Caitlin Zankowski

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with THON 2010 Overall Chairperson Caitlin Zankowski to talk about her experiences heading up the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. Sitting around a table in 210 HUB, where so many crucial decisions regarding THON and its direction are made, we talked about her experiences as Overall Chair and where she would like to see THON go in the future.

Onward State: What made you want to be Overall Chairperson for THON 2010?

Caitlin Zankowski: Well, I didn’t know until after THON 2009. At that point I was exhausted and didn’t know that I could give any more. After talking with a few people, including my parents, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Penn State without giving more to THON. I knew that THON 2010 would be better because of me, so when I started filling out my application it was pretty clear what was about to happen with my vision for the future and that’s kind of what sealed the deal.

OS: What does the overall chair do specifically? Before and during THON weekend.

CZ: First and foremost, I’m the protector of THON, which is an interesting way of looking at it.  All matters of keeping THON innocent and also in a good place starts with me. I’m the Overall Chair of the Overall committee, so the CEO, the CFO, however you want to talk about it, the COO I guess you could say too. Also, the pacesetter, the tone-setter, it all starts with me. But in terms of what I actually do? [Laughs] I’m the punching bag and sounding board for all ideas and relationships that are happening. So anything from the overall committee to captains to committee members to orgs, it all comes back to me. But tangibly, I only have one project that I had this year, which was the Summary of Fundraising Activities, and that’s like the only thing that has my name on it, so to speak. Not much [Laughs].

So when I came to the overall committee four weeks before THON, one of my bullet points for the meeting was “where do you need me THON weekend” because I didn’t have many tasks. I had to be at a few pre-THON press conferences and stuff like that. But I mean I was the host for one of the variety shows for the kids and I talked to a lot of the families and I went to see the Four Diamonds Board. But by and large the biggest thing I had to do was read the total, and that’s about it.

OS: Who besides you knows the total before it goes up?

CZ: In the Finance Room it’s myself, the finance overall and her two assistant treasurers, and Barry Bram [THON’s advisor]. So there’s five of us total, and we all hit the enter key together to see the total pop up, which is pretty cool.

OS: What was the interview process like for the Overall Chair?

CZ: Well the application was six questions, it was pretty intense. My application ended up being about twenty pages. And then the interview was Mike Hacke (THON 2009 Overall), Sarah Firestone (Director of Development and Alumni Relations for the Four Diamonds Fund), and Barry Bram and then every member of the 2009 Overall Committee that wasn’t applying [to be Overall Chair]. So there was about, 13 people interviewing me, which was pretty scary, and it’s about an hour long. They asked a lot of crazy things. It’s interesting because I worked with them all year, so they knew a lot about me, like who I was as a person, so there was a lot of, not situational questions, but “how would you have handled this differently”, “why did you act this way”, “you wrote this in your application, why did you write that”, and I had to critically analyze Mike Hacke, and say things about him that were very honest, but critical. I don’t remember most of the interview, which is kind of rough [Laughs].

OS: THON has seen tremendous growth over the last decade, what do you attribute that to?

CZ: A few things. The culture at Penn State, I mean, Hacke and I joke that it’s a boulder and it’s gonna keep rolling. You better get out of the way, because you can’t stop it. But I think that the diversity of the organizations involved and the diversity of our volunteers, there’s no normal path to being involved in THON, and there’s no normal path to being Overall Chair. We give everyone a shot and I think that’s a part of it. But also the personal connection involved in THON. There are so many families and so many students that have personal connections to the families and that keeps it going.

OS: The Public Relations committee has created quite a stir this semester with getting THON’s message out to the general public, celebrities specifically. There have been concerns voiced over celebrity involvement in THON, how do you feel about it?

CZ: Something we talked about as an Overall Committee even before all this stuff happened with Twitter and the blogs was that we never want THON to not be about the kids and the students. Do we like celebrity endorsement? Absolutely. But in a sense to draw awareness and attention to what we’re doing, not to give them credit or put their name on something that’s not theirs. So it’s a fine line and the tweeting was great. The good thing that came out of all that was the traffic to our website. Social media has played a huge part this year in what we’ve done, in terms of traffic to the website and webcast, and I don’t know if it’s correlated to donations, but one could probably draw that if they wanted to.

OS: You mentioned committees, what was your level of interaction with the captains and committee members? Did you get to work with many of them or was it mostly members of the overall committee?

CZ: Depends. I got to work with the Overall Committee most closely, and with captains for certain things. There are certain captains that “owned” projects that I had input with or had to work with. But I guess that most of my interaction came in the office, not project-oriented. Committee members, very limited, and I kind of regret that a lot. I loved my committee member experience, and my little sister was a committee member this year for OPP, and the great things I hear about so many committees, it’s hard. There’s not enough time. Or no, there is enough time, I just wish I had spent more time with the committee members. It was awesome seeing them all THON weekend, and I tried to say thanks as much as possible, because that’s where I started.

OS: If you can, describe the experience of being on stage and revealing the total at the end of THON.

CZ: Oh my God. Well if you listen to the audio clip, you know it was pretty scary. I’ll back it up a little bit. When we found out what the total was, I was standing and Lauren Tucci, the Finance Overall, was sitting, and I was leaning over the chair with her, and I fell on the floor and I started sobbing like, right away. Barry picked me up and was  like, “it’ll be okay, congratulations.” So the instant reaction is overwhelming, joy, shock. I felt like I was going to throw up, it was crazy. And leading up to it, I couldn’t tell anyone, and also, family hour is so emotional and my friends that were dancing, it’s a really rough point in the weekend. So it was an emotional roller coaster for me.

But standing up on stage, I don’t know if I was nervous or excited, but I was freaked out, like so emotional that this was actually going to happen. I think I kind of blew the surprise, people knew that we were higher, because I was freaking out, you could hear me breathing. I don’t remember, after I said, “The total for THON 2010, Love Belongs Here, is…” I don’t remember saying the total, I just remember like jumping. Which is like a total bummer. I think it’s like adrenaline, and who even knows what else that involves. I remember looking at the paper and wanting to throw my clipboard.

OS: Where do you hope THON goes in the future?

CZ: I’ve been asked this a lot, because I always talk about vision. People ask, “how did you become Overall Chair?” And a lot of it has to do with my vision for the future. But THON is growing, I always say that THON needs to grow better, not bigger. We’re getting to the point where we’re at critical mass, like mass capacity, whatever you want to call it, and we’re a well-oiled machine. And a lot of our volunteers work really hard. So in the future, I hope that the organizations involved can continue to grow because that’s such a cool factor of THON, and the involvement they have with the families.

I hope that there’s a solution in the future of the volunteers that can’t participate. We’ve talked a lot about it the past two years, about how we deny close to 2,000 volunteers, which is like, insane. And a lot of that is the growth of new organizations involved, people who still want to be a part of it. But I’m sure that some overall committee in the future will figure out a great way to keep those people engaged. But also, not becoming too big, and that’s a challenge we’re going to have in the future and I think it’ll be interesting to see how that goes in the next couple of years. Because since we’ve moved into the Bryce Jordan Center there’s been exponential growth in terms of all numbers, monetary included. Which is crazy, and no one saw it coming, so who knows?

OS: So what are your plans for the rest of the semester?

CZ: So I pick the new Overall Chair March 21st, and I will spend every day after that with them, transitioning them. So it’s actually a pretty intense process. These three weeks I get, the two weeks after THON and Spring break, are pretty much my last days of vacation. Which is cool, I’m excited to get back into it, and I will never forget my transition process with Hacke. I’m like passing my torch, passing on my baby to somebody, which is kind of scary. I’m excited, a little sad, not really nervous, but it is nerve-wracking, I’m still learning, I called Hacke yesterday to ask him something. Then they pick the next Overall Committee, which I won’t be a part of, but that’s a good thing. It’s one of those things where it all starts, so it’ll be good.

OS: Bonus Question – So if you had to be any dinosaur which one would you be?

CZ: Haha, we asked this question to like every captain we interviewed, it was absurd. I think I would want to fly. Do pterodactyls fly? Yeah, I think I’d be a pterodactyl.

It was great to sit down and talk with Caitlin about her experiences leading one of the most dominant aspects of the Penn State community. I had the pleasure of getting to work with her through my role as a THON Technology Captain, but never to discuss her experiences and thoughts on the organization. I could tell listening to her talk how much she cares about THON and its success. It definitely showed in the results this year.

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About the Author

Chase Tralka

Chase Tralka is a Senior majoring in Information Sciences and Technology with a minor in Security and Risk Analysis. He is from Northern New Jersey and is involved in far too many organizations to list here. He enjoys photography, cycling, and listening to obscure free jazz music.

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