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Paterno Fellows Program ‘Starts’ Honest Conversation About THON

It’s not every day you hear someone criticize THON in a public forum, especially when it feels like this type of tough conversation can leave you ostracized from the mainstream Penn State community. Even so, the Paterno Fellows Program sought out to kickstart a conversation about THON at its second annual current issues forum, “Understanding THON: For Which Kids? Starting a Conversation.”

The topic for the forum was the brainchild of senior Jack Shean, who also sat on the panel. Each panelist was given five minutes to describe THON from his or her perspective before answering questions from the small but mighty audience in the library’s Foster Auditorium.

Shean, who’s never been involved in THON, described how an idea to use THON for his freshman public deliberation elicited a visceral reaction from his group mates. He described THON as “extremely cultish and dangerously dogmatic,” commending the organization for its great work, but challenging that it’s not infallible.

He also questioned THON’s sole beneficiary, Four Diamonds, which is affiliated with Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center, and contended that research at Penn State is not necessarily the best research to support financially. He said students should take a more active role in determining where the funding goes.

“FTK is a great slogan, but it’s become a shield that you can hide behind here,” Shean said. Though numerous organizations say they’re open to criticism, Shean later said what makes THON different is “the attitude that it’s above the fray because it’s For The Kids.”

Psychology professor Daryl Cameron presented the moral psychology of THON, explaining three potentially interesting motivational factors for THON volunteers:

  • Effort: people find empathy and social behaviors to be effortful, but can derive great value from effort to empathize
  • Social Norms: people are sensitive to what we think others are doing, perceiving that other people care
  • Efficacy: believing you’re good convinces people to be more prosocial

Cameron contrasted ethical/moral conclusions of people between helping children who, for example, fell into water (most people said they would save them), and donating to UNICEF to save a child’s life (far fewer people choose to donate). He questioned how much internal and external motivations matter, and brought up the potential difference in third-party views of participant motivations.

Emily Purnell served as the THON 2019 communications director and was previously the family relations chair for Schreyer Student Council. She contended that THON provides a unique, direct connection to Four Diamonds families that can’t be, or usually isn’t, experienced with other philanthropies. She also explained that THON recognizes not every volunteer will be as passionate as its executive committee, and that reasons for getting involved can vary from passion for the cause, to wanting to meet friends, to wanting a leadership experience.

She said every extra dollar raised is a dollar THON didn’t have the day before, and the fact that it’s all raised by students is “something to be celebrated.” Purnell added she believes Penn State could unite around another cause, but THON’s success is expanded because the cause is so close to home and volunteers get to interact with the families they impact.

Purnell discussed her committee’s work on THON’s diversity and inclusion efforts, which have historically been a subject of criticism levied at the organization. THON created a diversity focus group this year with leaders of multicultural organizations on campus, and developed a video of people saying “For The Kids” in different languages.

These efforts were challenged by an audience member, who asked if THON tokenizing effectively a “diversity hour” during THON Weekend was truly enough. Purnell said those on the diversity focus group loved the idea, but recognized that there will always be people who don’t agree with any new initiative.

Economics professor Jadrian Wooten spoke about THON in terms of his own wheelhouse, economics. He explained that economics at its core is the allocation of scarce resources, and there are few things more scarce than THON’s mainstays: money and time. He outlined three lenses through which an economist would look at THON:

  • Pediatric cancer research doesn’t get a lot of money, but there are a lot of different cancers and illnesses that we’re all passionate about.
  • THON is the largest student-run philanthropy, but it raises less than fie percent of Penn State’s annual institution-wide fundraising totals.
  • Students are judged quickly based on their participation (or lack thereof) in THON.

Panelists were later asked whether the effort put into THON stifles other philanthropic efforts on campus, to which Shean answered a resounding “yes.” Wooten played devil’s advocate, saying from a truly economic standpoint, channeling all student participation into THON would be the most efficient.

Panini Pandya is a junior who has been heavily involved in THON special interest org Springfield, but she wasn’t afraid to criticize the organization. She discussed how she has constantly questioned even her own motivations for getting involved in THON.

“If the cause changed, would I have acted any different? And the answer is no,” Pandya said. “But the most impactful thing I’ve done at this university is become a part of THON.”

She emphasized the importance of thinking critically about what you’re giving your time to, and that THON serves a purpose for many students beyond the For The Kids slogan. She also asked the audience to consider whether the community could unite to support another cause.

Darcy Rameker advised THON from 2014 to 2017, which gives her a unique perspective on the THON executive committee and its year-round efforts beyond the 46-hour dance marathon. She commended students for maintaining THON year after year despite constant turnover in leadership, but explained the issues that some organizations face when THON fundraising consumes their true primary mission.

Rameker also suggested the social status aspect of THON might come more from outside the organization rather than from the students actually in THON’s top leadership roles.

One of the most striking aspects of the panel was pointed out by a question from another member of the audience: Throughout the night, THON was called both “cultish” and “a great place to make friends.”

While Shean admitted it’s not just THON that’s “drinking the blue and white Kool-Aid,” he said the community needs to stop treating the organization like a “sacred cow.” Pandya said those intimately involved in THON are constantly questioning every aspect of its annual operations, but Shean argued the constructive attitude is not maintained when such criticisms come from those outside the organization.

Moments of the panel were intriguing, but in the end, its dense format limited it to what its title suggested: starting a conversation.

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About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa was the managing editor of Onward State from 2017-2019. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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