Why I Don’t THON: Penn Staters Share Their Stories
This morning, we published a post about the importance of recognizing and validating individuals who chose not to participate in THON this weekend. While THON engages 15,000 Penn Staters each year, there are still 25,000 who choose not to participate.
As I said yesterday, “There are thousands of Penn Staters not participating in THON this weekend, contributing to the community in other ways, or maybe just relaxing. That’s okay. There shouldn’t be shame in not being involved in THON.”
We asked Penn Staters who decided not to THON this year to tell us their stories, and between the time the post was published at 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. this afternoon, I got more than 25 emails. I think it’s worthy to note that just about everyone who emailed me asked to remain anonymous. Many people felt the need to precede their stories to me with, “In no way do I dislike THON,” or end their email with, “THON is still a great thing.” Most people thanked me for giving people a chance to voice their opinions about THON and why they aren’t involved in a forum that won’t lead to them being harassed or belittled (although the commenters have been pretty hard on me!).
From more than 25 emails, there were about 17 general reasons people decide not to be involved in THON. Read on:
“THON has become a status symbol,” one student wrote. “THON has become so big that participation is competitive.” She referenced competition for street corners during Canning Weekends, and the prestige conferred with particular THON positions. She said being a dancer is the supreme status symbol because it’s hard to get and floor time is so competitive that some people join committees so they can get on the floor. There’s also a sense of ingenuity about it all, she said. “As for the THON children…I was seriously disgusted at how they were treated. Having a profile picture with a THON child is a hot commodity, so they were being passed around like accessories, and ignored otherwise. I saw a THON child, whose face and body had been ravaged by the disease, standing around completely ignored while dancers right next to her were posing for pictures with a ‘cuter’ kid.” THON is a great cause, she said, “I just don’t like what it has become at Penn State.”
Many students wrote that they believe in the cause of THON, but they have to work full-time jobs in addition to being full-time students in order to pay the bills. One student wrote that we cannot keep talking about it as if it is a Penn State necessity. “In the last few years it has been a consistent source of pride for Penn State and has helped us through the dark days of the ‘Scandal Years.’ What those who are heavily involved in it refuse to accept, though, is that it is an extracurricular activity…There is no graduation requirement to participate…Some of us have to take jobs to afford the opportunity to stay in school and buy groceries.”
Transition student stigma
One student who transitioned from Altoona to University Park this fall said things with THON were already in full-swing when she arrived on campus. “After a few weeks into fall semester, I felt like organizations were already doing interviews for THON positions. With going through the experience with change of campus, I felt like everything was happening so fast. I felt the stigma of being called a ‘transfer student’ and that THON was for the UP students that have been there since freshman year.” Instead of coming to the BJC all weekend, she decided to go home to spend time with family, but is looking forward to “attending THON on Sunday with full Penn State pride.”
“It was smaller back when I was in school here (00-04),” an alumna wrote, “but I always saw it as a ‘Greek event’ and didn’t know of any non-Greek students who participated. Didn’t know if was even an option for us to participate. To this day I’m still unclear about if I can go watch this in person. I live locally, grew up here, returned to live here, and I still don’t know…” (I replied to her email and told her the BJC is open to everyone this weekend.)
One student wrote about an experience in the emergency room during State Patty’s weekend after being in a car accident. There were drunk students waiting to be treated, and there was a theme with these students, he said. “I could tell they were all involved THON. Three of them had the Four Diamonds logo shaved into their head (albeit a little faded since THON was the week prior). And five(!) were wearing some sort of THON clothing. I was so disappointed that these people represented THON in this light…Maybe this should be a letter about how DUMB State Patty’s Day has become. But it blows my mind that within a week’s time I could go from feeling so proud of my university to feeling like it was all fake.”
Other service opportunities
One student decided to not be involved in THON after she realized her motivation for joining wasn’t to contribute to the cause, but instead to feel included. “Freshman year my main reason to participate in a committee was to feel included on my dorm floor. I realized quickly when all the other girls got selected for committees and I did not that I really wasn’t looking to do THON for the right reasons. As a result I ended up looking for other opportunities to do service…While I may not be directly involved with THON, I fully support and respect the work my fellow friends and peers do on behalf of The Four Diamonds families. I hope they understand my point of view and respect/support the work I do serving in other places…at the end of the day this is not about us but rather about the people we serve, no matter who they are.”
An alum-turned-townie wrote that she wasn’t involved in THON as a student or as an alum because “I have my own charities that are close to my heart that I give time and money too. This does in no way diminish THON. It’s just that, like all of us, we all have limited time and money. There are so many charities that need us. It’s impossible to give to everything…We are still giving our time and money. It’s just going to other different and completely worthy causes!”
Confusion about how to participate
Trying to get involved in THON can be a daunting task. Some students aren’t sure how to get involved beyond going Greek or joining a committee, and denial from those chances to participate can turn them off for good, although many still choose to donate and attend for parts of the weekend. One alumna said she felt denied an opportunity to be involved. “I was always so proud to be a student at Penn State, especially around THON weekend. Attending a university where students could come together and do something so huge was an amazing feeling, and I wanted to be part of that. But as a student who wasn’t part of a fraternity or sorority, I didn’t have an automatic pass to be able to participate. I had to apply and go to an interview. I interviewed for the financial committee of THON. Seemed easy enough for a college student wth a high GPA to sit, count donations, and then be able to say I did my part in THON. But they denied me and so I literally could not be part of THON as a student who wanted to participate in something so big.”
Negative THON Weekend experiences
Some students have had bad experiences during THON Weekend, and sometimes these disappointments were simply due to not understanding what to expect upon arrival at the BJC. One student who participated through her Commonwealth campus said she didn’t know she would have to stand outside waiting in the cold to get into the BJC, and ended up getting frostbite. She wasn’t able to get on the floor, and didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get a chance to dance on the floor FTK. The final straw for her, though, was her organization’s reaction to their fundraising total that year: disappointment. “We apparently didn’t raise enough money to satisfy the club, even though it was tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “I realized that, for my club at least, THON exists for the egos of those involved. Not for the kids. Not for medical advancement…It was for themselves, disguised as FTK.”
One student transferred from another university and tried to join a THON organization here at University Park. “The club I joined wasn’t very welcoming. There weren’t really any new members that year, so I felt like I was stuck inside some kind of inside joke I didn’t know about,” she said. There were also high expectations about what THON weekend was supposed to mean to her. “The weekend of THON they kept asking me how much fun I was having and how life changing it was, but honestly I didn’t feel anything because it would’ve been fun if the people I was with were welcoming and friendly.”
Disappointment in captain conduct
One alumna wrote saying she participated in THON as a student, but also saying, “I draw a hard line when it comes to THON weekend.” She went on, “As a student, I often felt the THON-shame for not being in the stands on THON weekend. To be clear, I think raising funds towards pediatric cancer is great but I chose to not participate heavily in THON (I was involved in two organizations that participated so I had loose ties to it), but I disagree with how students who have high levels of “power” within THON conduct themselves (I’m looking at you captains).” She explained, “some of the things our students do in the name of THON or ‘FTK’ is disgraceful — at least in my four years there, but maybe things have changed for the better — so I chose not to go to the BJC for a party.”
Shame for non-THONers
It can sometimes feel like you’re an outsider if you don’t do THON, students wrote. “I also don’t like the fact that many THONers look down on others for not being a part of what they do, because that’s just judgmental and rude. Every time I meet someone new who THONs, I see a huge look of disappointment in their eyes when I admit that I am not involved. Just because I go here does not mean I need to drink the ‘Penn State Kool-Aid’ like the rest of campus and do what everyone else does. Let people be individuals.”
Feeling THON is “too big to fail”
THON is heavily supported by Penn State, and some students feel that it has become overwhelming. “I don’t THON because of the scale of the philanthropy and how it has resulted in a sense of superiority over those that choose not to participate,” one student wrote. “THON has become too big to fail, and the University knows that. THON gets many benefits that other student organizations do not get, not only because of its size, but because the University has, for lack of a better term, babied THON…I fully support THON and think it is a wonderful organization, my disagreement with it lies with the University cultivating it into almost a social requirement.”
Personal health problems
Unfortunately, some students feel the need to lie about why they aren’t attending THON weekend in the BJC. “For the past couple of years people have been giving me these weird looks every single time I tell them I’m just staying home and catching up on school work while watching THON on live stream,” a student said. “But, the truth is that they don’t know that my health does not allow me to participate in THON at all. I have back problems that would be impossible for me to stand up for more than one hour without being in severe pain and epilepsy. I once told someone about it, and their reply was: ‘if kids with cancer can make it to the event, I think you can.’ So, ever since that day, I’ve supported THON from home.”
Overshadowing other organizations
With more than 1,000 student organizations on campus, it would be hard to cover them all on a tour or information session. Some students, though, feel that THON has come to overshadow the other great student orgs on campus. “If you go on any accepted students’ tour you’ll hear the usual things: what buildings hold what resources, about the residence areas, THON will be mentioned, and I could go on and on,” one student wrote. “One thing that stuck out for me was that there are about 1,000 clubs and organizations on campus. There may be all these opportunities to get involved, but one seems to overshadow them all.” For this student, THON simply didn’t have an impact on him like his other organizations did. “I saw what happened for about 12 hours that weekend. It wasn’t exciting for me. I was watching a few thousand people mill around the BJC floor. I just never got really into it like many students do. What THON means to those involved is what Club Crew, Lutheran Student Community, and my floor mean to me.”
Many people who emailed explained that although they won’t be at the BJC this weekend, they contributed to THON in other ways throughout the entire year. One student wrote, “Some of us (not everyone) have had personal tragedies from what cancer can do to families. In 2008, my father at the age of 45 died of lung cancer. This shock from his death has had a true effect on how I deal with others who are going through cancer. Although I’m not in THON, it doesn’t mean I didn’t contribute to it. I donated money. And I believe contributing something to THON means you’re a part of it, even though you’re not technically in a group or on a committee.”
Demanding student organizations
“It’s just not for me”
Some students say THON is just not their scene, but they feel judged for choosing not to participate. “It is often misunderstood by everyone in THON that those who don’t THON are cruel, heartless, selfish creatures of the university. However, it is as simple as the fact that THON isn’t for everyone and I feel as if that should just be acceptable in itself. We obviously want pediatric cancer to end but not every person is meant for the high energy and high involvement atmosphere THON entails. I feel as if THON usually shapes how people look at you, however our university and students are bigger than those judgmental evaluations…Sports aren’t for everyone, neither is theater or Greek life and THON is no exception…THON simply just isn’t for everyone, end of story. We need diversity and differences to truly be Penn State…that’s why I came here!”
Although THON involves 15,000 of us, there are many who choose not to participate or who contribute to this cause or others in different ways. THON is an incredible way to be involved in philanthropy, but there are many reasons people choose not to be involved. Understanding these stories is an important part of understanding what it means to be a Penn Stater. Our hope is that this post sheds some light on some of the other things students choose to do with their time, or helps us to understand why some have been turned off by THON. We hope this sparks conversations.
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About the Author
“We’re kind of like a really quirky frat that happens to know far too much about tea.”
The festival is a family affair for the newly-named executive director of Movin’ On 2020, Michelle Mischler. Her sister, Katie, served as the executive director for the 2017 and 2018 festivals.
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