Students Are the Driving Force Behind THON, Penn State’s Mammoth Annual Dance Marathon for Charity

Of all the many bowl games played after college football’s regular season (and there were 42 games this year), the 103-year-old Rose Bowl proudly proclaims itself The Granddaddy of Them All.

The 68-team college basketball tournament that brings March its Madness is known far and wide, even among people who couldn’t tell a Blue Devil from a Blue Demon, as the Big Dance.

But when you talk about actual big dances, there is one undisputed Granddaddy of Them All: THON, the annual 46-hour dance marathon that is as much a fixture on the Penn State University calendar as homecoming or graduation. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1977, and in its 40 years, THON has raised more than $136 million for Four Diamonds, an organization that supports the families of children being treated for cancer at the Penn State Children’s Hospital.

It’s an amazing event made even more amazing when you realize that the entire THON process – which is really a year’s worth of events and fundraising efforts – is entirely student run. Roughly 15,000 students volunteer every year, putting millions of hours into their various roles, which range from students standing on street corners collecting coins on various Canning Weekends to the executive director, who oversees the executive committee and the 16 committees they manage.

“It’s a leadership opportunity like no other,” said Austin Sommerer, the executive director of THON 2017, which is scheduled for the weekend of February 17-19.

Austin came to Penn State, in large part, to work on THON. He and his family had been involved with Oceans of Love, a New Jersey-based charity that supported families dealing with pediatric cancer, so the cause was already close to him before he arrived on campus. He worked his way up the volunteer ranks, from a role on the Public Relations committee as a freshman to being an entertainment captain as a sophomore (when he also had the pleasure of being one of the first student DJs to work THON weekend). He spent his junior year as the Entertainment Director, and was selected Executive Director prior to his senior year.

“There are so many moving parts to all of this,” said Austin, a Marketing major who appreciates that he is not likely to find a real-world role with this much responsibility when he graduates this spring. “It’s a constant brain game. Every decision you have to consider this entity and that entity, how each stakeholder will react.”

Talk about an authentic learning opportunity. It’s one thing for a college student to talk about strategic planning in a classroom environment. It’s another thing entirely to actually drive strategic decisions that affect a many-tentacled operation with so much at stake — THON raised $9.7 million in 2016 alone.

“We are thrilled to see our successes, but we also always look for what we can improve on,” said Tommy Radziminski, a Finance and Economics major who chairs the committee for Donor & Alumni Development.

Like Austin, Tommy worked his way up the volunteer food chain, starting on the Rules and Regulations Committee as a freshman then serving two years as a captain, first overseeing Rules and Regulations Event Safety and then Donor and Alumni Relations Development. He and his fellow volunteers on the executive committee are likely to spend 30-40 hours a week working on THON business, on top of their full course-loads and all the standard classroom demands.

“That may seem like a lot, “ Tommy said, “but you’re surrounded by people who share your same core values, who enjoy seeing the impact they can make. It really does change you.”

Over the next four weeks, we will continue to tell the story of THON, trying to capture the experience of participating from a variety of vantage points. You can find out more about THON on its website and follow these pieces on You can also support THON by visiting a dedicated Campus Causes site created for them, selecting any one of 80 student THON campaigns and then shopping popular brands who give a portion of each purchase back to THON.