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Student Affairs Podcast: Supporting THON from a Distance

You can now listen to the latest episode of “Conversations with Student Affairs,” the podcast managed by the Student Affairs team at Penn State World Campus in collaboration with our many colleagues and partners across the University’s Student Affairs teams.

Title: Penn State World Campus for THON

Participating guests: Penn State World Campus for THON Executive Director Ariel Hinojos and Technology Chair Daniel Serfass

Summary: Ariel and Daniel share their organization updates and goals, discuss how you can get involved, and explain why FTK (For the Kids) is the THON motto.

Three interesting or helpful takeaways from this episode:

World Campus for THON is a relatively new group but has enthusiastic members who are passionate about its mission. Daniel explains that the group’s origins sprang from the Student Leadership Conference in 2020. “They had a breakout room solely for THON people, and I kept thinking that THON is one of the quintessential Penn State experiences and organizations that you can be a part of. But World Campus did not really have access to that at the time.”

There are plenty of creative ways World Campus students can participate from a distance. Not surprisingly, social media can play a big part. “I would love to do a TikTok dance challenge,” says Ariel. “A lot of our members and directors are really involved with TikTok. I think that would be a fun, silly way to get our board and committee members to bring out their characters and their personality.”

Club leaders welcome new members — especially those with ideas for future projects and activities. They are especially eager to brainstorm ways that World Campus students can get involved with fundraising initiatives for THON.

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Podcast Transcript 

JEN TOOF: Hello. Welcome to Conversations with Student Affairs. I’m your host, Jen Toof, and we will be discussing THON for today’s episode. Our guests, Ariel and Daniel, are from our Penn State World campus for THON organization. When I started at the University in 2013, one of the first things I learned about was THON. My students would say, Jen, we want to have a fundraiser! Jen, we want to have an event! And I was on the student activities position at the time, and so right when I started, right at the beginning of the year, our students were wanting to get their THON events going. And now that I’ve come over to World Campus, I’m so excited to hear that our World Campus has a THON organization.

So before we get into our conversation, let’s meet our guests. So Ariel, I’ll have you go first, and then Daniel, if you’d want to do an introduction. And you both can say as little or as much about yourselves as you want. And Daniel, when you go into your introduction, can you share with us how THON came to be for World Campus?

ARIEL HINOJOS: So my name is Ariel. I am a senior at World Campus majoring in Law in Society, and I am the Executive Chair for THON. So that’s pretty much it.

JEN TOOF: Great, thank you.

DANIEL SERFASS: I’m Daniel. I am in the Security and Risk Analysis program here at World Campus. I was the Executive Chair last year. I am currently the Technology Chair, and I also was primarily the founding member of making sure that this was an organization that really got off the ground. When it started up, this all came to fruition, actually, because of the student leadership experience or conference that they held that year in 2020. They had a breakout room solely for THON people. THON chairs, THON leaders throughout all of the Penn State campuses, and talking to them, they were very interested in hearing my takes because of the fact that we are so accustomed to the online environment because of World Campus.

And then I started thinking about the fact that THON is — I keep saying this and I always will — is THON is one of the quintessential Penn State experiences and organizations that you can be a part of. But World Campus did not really have access to that. And so I thought to myself, I can try as hard as possible to get involved with organizations that are at the campuses — and students can as well, whatever campuses they’re near — or we can actually have a dedicated World Campus org and make that an actual thing and make that another experience that World Campus can provide to students. And bringing THON to that can really make it part of the Penn State experience despite the fact that we’re online students as well, to show that it actually, truly is the real Penn State and you’re getting the real Penn State experience, too.

JEN TOOF: Yep, yeah. So Daniel, you’ve mentioned the word THON quite a bit, just like my students did all the way back in 2013. And so Ariel, could you tell our listeners, what is THON? Like, how would you describe that?

ARIEL HINOJOS: So, THON is the largest philanthropy that’s ran by students in the world. It’s a yearlong effort where students come together to raise funds, raise awareness for the fight against childhood cancer. Then THON concludes with the 46-hour, no sitting, no sleeping, dance marathon that takes place in February. It’s coming up, February 18th through the 20th. So that’s pretty much what THON is.

JEN TOOF: Yes. When I think of THON, it is one of the most remarkable events for the time and energy that I see students put in. But then when I see the connections that students are doing through fundraising for a greater cause such as childhood cancer, such as connecting — if they have a THON family that they are with — there is something so much larger than I think any Penn stater could ever think about until you are fully involved in THON.

So when students are participating in that 46 hours of dancing, no sitting, no sleeping, my students would share with me that grueling 46 hours, and that pain and transformation that a body can go through is very similar to what somebody might be going through with their first treatment for cancer. And so it’s so much larger and more than just fundraising and bringing awareness, but a greater good for families and for children who are impacted by childhood cancer. So thank you both for getting us started in this conversation.

In each of our episodes, we like our listeners to be able to have an opportunity to get to know our guests a little bit more, and we call it our if-you-could segment. And I was thinking, with THON weekend — because THON weekend has activities and entertainment for those 46 hours to be able to keep everybody engaged. So if you could have any activity at THON weekend or as a fundraiser, what would that be, and how do you hope it would connect with your student organization?

ARIEL HINOJOS: So being that we are virtual, I would love to do a TikTok dance challenge. A lot of our members or our directors are really involved with TikTok. They’ve brought it up, they’ve mentioned TikTok. I think that it would be a fun, silly way to get our board and committee members to bring out their characters and their personality. So I think that would be really fun. Since we are virtual, we don’t get to see each other face to face, so it would be fun to be able to watch the videos of them and their personalities and what they can do.

JEN TOOF: That’s awesome. So when I had been at the Beaver Campus and activities and I was working with our peer leaders, the Justin Timberlake song from Trolls had come out, and it was dancing and we had all of our peer leaders and our students and our administration doing dance clips on campus. So we didn’t have TikTok then, but now I’m thinking, wow, you could really take that off the ground for a TikTok challenge to bring awareness for THON and for fundraising. Daniel, how about you? Same question.

DANIEL SERFASS: With regards to THON weekend, I really wouldn’t want to change anything, just because of the fact that it is such a beautiful event, and then when you keep in mind that it’s 100% student-run, it is absolutely mind-blowing the event they managed to put on for 46 straight hours in the entire fruition that is THON weekend and the Bryce Jordan. It is phenomenal by any means whatsoever.

One thing that I would like to do, fundraising-wise, is we are also virtual, but we’re also a global network that World provides us. So I thought about, even when we first started, the amount of ideas that went through my head of we are a global network, we have a massive reach. How can we utilize that? Because we have our 5K that — the THON 5K down at the Bryce Jordan in the fall. It’s stuff like that, of can we regionally organize events like that and put stuff on throughout not just the country, but throughout the world and make the World Campus brand synonymous with global fundraising, as well for THON?

And that’s just — as soon as we got the go-ahead and the green light for this organization, my mind immediately went to that just because of the reach that we have. Because, I mean, I’m here in State College, so, I mean, I have access to THON itself and the entire environment that surrounds it. But there are communities that, unless you’re a Penn State alum or a Penn State student or a Penn State family, you don’t really know what THON is. And so you can start expanding that to different communities and really show them what THON it is, because it’s one of those things that if you show it to people, they’re more than likely going to love it, just because it’s that type of experience. Yeah.

JEN TOOF: And to be able to show people, right? We know THON weekend is a live stream, and for our student affairs snapshot, I was actually going to bring up that there is the Why We Dance: The Story of THON. So any of our listeners, if you want to see what THON looks like, I think it was maybe 10 years ago or so, the Why We Dance video came out. It’s just under an hour in length. Many listeners want to take a look at it. You can go to a search engine and type in, Why We Dance: The Story of THON. WPSU has information about it, YouTube has full-length, and as well as Amazon Prime. So those are just on a quick search for any of our listeners who actually want to see that energy through a video that was produced about why we dance.

And so when you were mentioning about needing to see that, if any of our listeners do want to see it, they can take about 60 minutes to dedicate to viewing that. And I think it’s unbelievable — so Ariel, you had shared that it’s the largest run student philanthropy. For preparation for tonight, I was looking to find out what year THON started. It was 1973. I was surprised — I could not believe that we are coming upon almost 50 years dancing and THONing and fundraising for childhood cancer, and that’s just remarkable for any type of student organization — or any student philanthropy — to be coming up on 50 years. What does that make you guys feel when you hear 50 years of THONing, that we’re almost there?

ARIEL HINOJOS: It gives me a sense of pride to be a part of this and to be able to participate because 50 years, that’s incredible. That shows dedication from the students that they’ve been able to continue running this year after year, and it’s been a success year after year.

DANIEL SERFASS: Yeah, and I mean, I’m kind of even glad that you brought it up, because in the Penn Stater Magazine — I think it was last month’s edition — their cover was dedicated and their main piece this month was dedicated to THON, or the story of THON being 50 years this year. It started in ’73, but when the founder of Four Diamonds wrote the story that Four Diamonds was based on, that was this 50 year mark that we just passed.

It is crazy to think about 50 years and the massive impact that it had, and I don’t know any Penn stater that does not know THON. And it has truly become now just a Penn State institution in the same vein that football is. If there are two massive things that Penn State’s known for, its being a football town and also THON, because we take those to heart, and it’s fantastic the way we do.

JEN TOOF: I mentioned at the top of our episode that I started in 2013 with Penn State. When I started, I used to love it when my family would text me, and they would see it on the 6:30 news on Sunday after the total for THON would come in, and it would be on the national news about the millions of dollars that Penn Staters were fundraising and bringing awareness to on that THON weekend. And then, you know, I just love that my family thought enough to connect and see THON and Penn State, and I appreciated the text, because I knew how hard the students worked. And so that was also that greater extension of how much admiration the entire world can have for students who are involved in that.

So for our on the corner segment — so we often talk about intersecting topics, and we also have our toolbox for success. Since we are solely focused on THON here, instead of having individual segments, I’m just going to go through some questions for us to talk about THON, because I really want our listeners to find an opportunity to connect with your organization before our THON weekend if they want to. Learn more about how they can become involved in their community, or what does fundraising look like, or they’re sparked by something that they heard here.

So could you share with our listeners? So Daniel, you were talking about how the THON organization came to be, because you’ve had this experience and you thought, wow, we could have this at World Campus. What more would you want to share for our listeners about the direction that THON can go, as well as what more it can be for World Campus students?

DANIEL SERFASS: It can be truly engaging to students that are involved. We can host certain events to engage students. We can — given the fact that our organization is so new, we’ve only started unlocking the potential that THON can afford us. For example, we, down the line, can have a THON family. We can have THON dancers. We can really do a lot more with regards to THON. It’s just, it does take time, as an organization, to grow and really seize those opportunities that it does afford us.

JEN TOOF: There’s potential for alumni to become involved. There’s potential for students to become involved, faculty and staff to become involved here. How can we, as our Penn State community, hop in and help this growth that Daniel was just talking about?

ARIEL HINOJOS: So as Daniel mentioned, we are a newer committee organization. So a lot of the World Campus students were unaware that we had our own THON. So word of mouth, getting it out there that we exist, having students join us in the fundraising. If they’re not able to fundraise, helping us spread the word that we have a fundraiser going on. Social media is a huge thing, so we got our social media up and running, so sharing posts of whatever we’re posting on there and getting that out there is really helpful. I believe next year, it’s going to be even bigger, because we’ve seen significant growth from the first year to this year. So I look forward to see what is going to happen in the coming years with World Campus and THON.

JEN TOOF: Awesome. Are there any specific fundraisers that you guys were able to dig in — knowing that you’re a newer organization — did you have any fundraisers that you were able to start this year?

ARIEL HINOJOS: Yes. Our first fundraiser was actually a virtual bingo. That was pretty successful. We sent out bingo cards. Sponsors and donors were able to buy squares in there, and then donate directly to donor drive. Right now, we’re currently working on a fundraiser that — I will pass this over to Daniel. He’s the pro on this fundraiser.

JEN TOOF: All right, share with us, Daniel.

DANIEL SERFASS: Yeah. So right now, we’re actually doing 46K for the 46. And if anyone is interested in doing that, I believe it’s actually just about to come to an end, unfortunately. But the gist of it is, you can join our Strava group that we have on the Strava website or app or whatever your preference is. For those who don’t know, Strava, you can log your runs, hikes, any physical activities. And our goal, as an organization, was, within this time frame, to do 46 kilometers in distance of really whatever you want to do.

So I know a bunch of us would log our walks. I actually hiked Mount Nittany basically as soon as we started it up. From there, it’s just, help encourage us, get over the finish line of 46K and while you’re at it, donate to our donor drive page and donate to Four Diamonds, because that’s, really, at the end of the day, what this is all about and helping out Four Diamonds really carry on that mission still.

JEN TOOF: So when we move into after THON weekend — and, hopefully, some of our listeners are really grabbing hold and wanting to get involved here — how should they go about contacting your organization to get involved? Or maybe they think about opportunities in their community that they want to put on fundraisers. How should some of our listeners make that contact?

ARIEL HINOJOS: So they can go on to the World Campus student affairs website. They can fill out an interest form. Those interest forms are then sent to the executive chair, and then I would get in contact with them. Or they can email me at akh5921@psu.edu and let me know that they’re interested, and then I can get them the proper information that they need.

JEN TOOF: Great! Thanks, Ariel. For our listeners, I’ll make sure that we have a link to our Get Involved student organization web page, as well as your contact information for your email. And Daniel, that Strava that you just mentioned, I will make sure that we have that available if any of our listeners want to pop on to see. So we’ll have that link there.

So when we think about success for your organization, Daniel, you said having dancers, having a THON family, would be some of those next steps and goals. Besides that, what does it take to get to having THON dancers? What does it take to getting a THON family when we think of fundraising?

DANIEL SERFASS: We’ll have to demonstrate that, for one, we’re here to stay and that we can function year in and year out as a THON organ, as a fundraising operation for Four Diamonds. Truly, at the end of the day, I believe that’s how they look at giving you a THON family. We also then have to have a family chair, the family liaison to then be the front point for that family.

I believe it’s a fundraising goal for dancers, and it has to be a consistent fundraising goal. I don’t know what it is off the top of my head. And I got that question a couple of days ago, after the student engagement fair that we had. Got that question a couple of times. So I was even starting to look into that as well. It’s just truly going to show them that, for one, we’re here to stay. We’re an organization that is going to be here as long as World Campus is going to be here, and that’s my goal, personally, as well, to make sure that we’re continuously an organization. Because if THON can operate for 50 years, there’s nothing stopping us from doing the same.

JEN TOOF: Yeah. And student engagement is so important. So if any of our listeners are new to Penn State, new to Penn State World Campus and looking for an opportunity just to get involved for THON, you can be involved in as little or as much as you want, but you need to communicate that to your organization, especially when you think about World Campus students who are also balancing families and their professional responsibilities as well.

So I think for any of our students who are wanting to get involved, THON is a great way to meet other Penn Staters, other World Campus students, and it’s a great way of feeling a part of the larger Penn State community and feeling that we are pride that students, I think, often desire, because it’s tradition. Right? It’s been around for so long, just as you were talking about, Daniel.

When I think about future milestones of the organization — if you really had a giant crystal ball and you could move mountains or have anything that you want or those large goals for your organization, what would be some of those larger goals that you hope, maybe 5 or 10 years down the line, that other students in the organization are continuing to work towards?

DANIEL SERFASS: Yeah. I think, immediately, right off the bat, I don’t know how I would ever react if I was in the Bryce Jordan when they start revealing the totals and the tallies for fundraising. And for those who have not attended THON, what they’ll do is they’ll also have a top 10 breakdown of who raised the most, and also break down the order of fundraising by the Commonwealth orgs, which, we ourselves, included. Be it Penn State Harrisburg for THON, Lehigh Valley for THON, World for THON.

They then rank and show exactly who was really the top dog for fundraising that year. I would be astonished, and I think we can do it down the line, for us to be number one. It’s a rather large goal to hit for one year, and that is a feat of strength that I would be just absolutely speechless on. But for me to see that, I think it is achievable. I think, down the road, we can do that. But I would absolutely love to see that happen.

JEN TOOF: So you want you want to be in that top 10, maybe number one someday? You want to see the organization there?

DANIEL SERFASS: Yeah, I want to see World Campus right on the top of the jumbotron in the Bryce Jordan, so we can show everybody World is nothing to mess around with.

JEN TOOF: We have a significant student population and alumni network just at World Campus, so listeners, you’ve heard this long term goal. We’re not going to do it overnight, but what can we start to put in place? Ariel, if you had that crystal ball, what would that look like?

ARIEL HINOJOS: Well, Daniel’s goal takes the cake. But I would love to — I believe it’s 3,000 that an org has to raise in order to get a dancer. I would love to see our org raise that 3,000 in coming years and have dancers.

JEN TOOF: That’s a nice goal, and not a lot of organizations get there. All right, so we are nearing the conclusion of our episode, and I love to give our guests that opportunity for the final thought. And so Daniel, since you kicked us off about where the organization got started at World Campus, let’s have you start us off on a final thought. And Ariel — since you are currently in that executive position now — have you share your final thoughts after Daniel.

DANIEL SERFASS: Oh, it’s tough. It’s really tough to try to put it all in to words, honestly. Because at least me having witnessed it coming from the thought and just the conversation at student leadership experience with other THON chairs, which, by the way, THON people, no matter at what campus, are some of the most helpful people, probably, on the planet. Because they were so helpful to me starting all of this up. They were available to me pretty much on the drop of a dime.

I have fostered relationships that I will probably never forget for the rest of my life, just because of the fact that we met in a Zoom breakout room talking about THON, and now we have this organization, and now we can talk about these large goals that we have, like being number one on the fundraising board or even getting dancers down the road — which we will. We will, quote me on that.

But, yeah. And no, it’s just honestly remarkable, because THON has a way for 50 years of bringing the absolute best out of students. And it’s such a good opportunity for students at World Campus to even do it, because we’re in an environment where it’s tougher for students to interface and network like that and to see the other students that can really run their show.

Because I have to say, if there’s one piece of bragging I have to do, it’s, I know how to pick them. Because Ariel has done a phenomenal job this year. And I would not have changed anything to do in that decision making, because it goes to showcase just the type of people that THON can really bring and do it circles and really highlight what Penn State students can do, no matter what environment they’re in. Be it residential, on a campus, or online through World, our leadership throughout the Commonwealth is stacked. I will say that.

I truly love it. I love FTK, and it’s just a phenomenal experience. I am just grateful now that World Campus people now can do this, because I have now been a part of going to THON as a person that wasn’t part of any THON organizations before, always wanting to be. But because World Campus didn’t have it, now we do. So now, I’m even viewing THON through a different lens now of, wow, this is the show that we all put on. And it’s just — I have not got choked up talking in a very long time, and I can hear myself just —

ARIEL HINOJOS: I could see it on you. It’s great.

DANIEL SERFASS: I will leave it at that, I will leave it at that, though, because —

JEN TOOF: Well, that’s what THON does when you’re involved. And you shared FTK. I know what FTK means. Can you share with our listeners what FTK is?

DANIEL SERFASS: Yeah. It is the slogan, motto, way of life, way of THON, and that is, for the kids. Because at the end of the day, that is what matters. Because that is who this is all for.

JEN TOOF: Well, Daniel, and you said you were at a loss for words. I think you shared a lot of amazing words with us and Ariel, since you are now the one overseeing this organization, what else would you add?

ARIEL HINOJOS: I can’t reiterate it enough. For the students that are listening, get involved. Something small to you could mean something huge to somebody else. Prior to getting involved, I heard about THON, I watched videos about THON. But being the center and involved, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s amazing. Whether it’s $5 or $500, every single dollar we raise, it’s just an incredible feeling. So get involved, reach out, take advantage that World Campus has an organization that participates in THON and that can raise money. Daniel is amazing. He has led us wonderfully, because he’s been to THON, he knows everything THON, so he’s been an amazing help as well.

JEN TOOF: Well, I think that that is a perfect way for ending our episode, and I thank you both so much for all the work that you’re doing for the kids, for our communities, for our students. The level of involvement and the level of dedication and what it took to get this organization off the ground, I thank you both in that impactful way that you’ve had on our World Campus community. I hope next year we can talk about some of these milestones with, maybe, a dancer.

ARIEL HINOJOS: Yes, definitely. Thank you so much for having us.

DANIEL SERFASS: Yes, thank you very much for giving us this platform.