A Drive to Help Others: THON experience inspires former leaders as they pursue varied careers
Leading the world’s largest student-run philanthropy is no small task. Much like running a business, there are people to manage, conflicts to resolve, and details to organize.
But, unlike most businesses, THON’s entire leadership group changes from year to year. This means that individual leaders need to walk a delicate line between honoring traditions and looking toward the organization's future.
Being involved in THON has impacted the careers of those who served as leaders. Some have gone on to careers in the nonprofit sector, while others utilize the organizational and leadership skills they learned in the corporate world.
No matter where their careers have gone, these individuals have not lost the drive to help others that was instilled in them through their experience as THON leaders.
As current leaders prepare for 2018 THON Weekend February 16-18, here’s a look at some who came before them.
1992 THON Overall Chair
Director of Global Accounts, LinkedIn
New York City
It’s been 25 years since John Ferenchak ran THON, but many of the changes he worked to make are still felt in the organization today.
Under his leadership, THON began to shift from a fraternity and sorority-only organization to something in which student groups throughout Penn State could participate. Because of that effort, 1992 was the first year that THON’s fundraising total broke $1 million.
Back then, the organization was known as the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. It would take many more years for the name to formally change, but Ferenchak and his team planted the seeds to begin the transformation.
“We did a lot of outreach to organizations that didn’t know how to get involved,” he says. “We pulled back the curtain on fundraising and taught them how to go about canning, how to get permits, and how to find the best locations.”
THON’s fundraising tactics have also changed a lot since Ferenchak’s days. He wishes that he could have harnessed social media, but is thankful for the sales experience that he gained from cold calling potential donors in the pre-Internet era.
“Now with one Tweet you can reach so many people,” he says. “With us, it was all word of mouth and getting on the phone.”
At LinkedIn, Ferenchak draws on the worldview he gained from his time with THON to inspire compassion in his team. He says he’s fortunate to work for a company that shares his commitment to community service.
“I needed to create something in my college life that gave purpose and THON was an amazing opportunity to do so,” Ferenchak says. “As a leader at LinkedIn, I try to inspire others to reach their objectives in the same way that Dance Marathon inspired me to do so.”
Alyssa Cherkin Rosenberg
1997 THON Overall Chair
Corporate Citizenship Leader, Deloitte
Alyssa Cherkin Rosenberg was walking down College Avenue the summer before her year as THON overall chair began when inspiration struck. At that time, THON didn’t really get going until the start of the school year and, by the time freshman found out about it, it was often too late to get involved.
Rosenberg came up with the idea of having a THON-related event in the fall, something that’s now become the THON Family Carnival held each October. The event also served as a “mini-THON” and provided an opportunity for organizers to work out the bugs of organizing and executing a large event before THON weekend in February.
“Back then we had three canning weekends in February and nothing formal that connected families and students,” Rosenberg says. “It’s amazing to know now that the family carnival is a tradition and part of the rhythm of THON.”
Rosenberg’s first job out of college was at a museum in Philadelphia, where she says that she was “bored to tears” doing menial tasks after all of the activity that comes with being a THON leader. She took some time off to re-evaluate her priorities and eventually made her way into the nonprofit world.
Based on that experience, she did a seminar for a few years on how THON leaders could successfully transition into the corporate world without losing their sense of optimism and drive as she did.
She’s most passionate about improving educational access in Philadelphia and fighting cancer, and uses the fundraising and networking skills she learned through THON to help drive corporate interest in those causes.
“My job is to connect people and resources of our firm with the greatest needs of the community,” she says. “I need to be passionate about what I’m doing, and I’m lucky to have found that at Deloitte.”
Jayme (Rubright) Rothman
2002 THON Overall Chair
Director of Events and Partnerships, Robin Hood Foundation
New York City
Jayme Rothman knew she wanted to work at a magazine after graduating from Penn State with an English degree. The magazine she landed at was Martha Stewart Living — shortly before its namesake went to jail in 2003.
Rothman then turned her career to something she knew well, the nonprofit sector, and hasn’t looked back since. While her days as THON overall chair were spent helping children with pediatric cancer, she now spends her time raising money to help support children living in poverty throughout New York City.
“We provide funding to over 200 poverty-fighting organizations from homeless shelters to soup kitchens,” Rothman says. “There’s been no better training for that than Dance Marathon … it’s very similar to what we do.”
Rothman met her husband, Albert, through THON. The couple welcomed their second child in December. Their family commitments these days make it tough to participate in THON activities, but they look forward to experiencing THON with their children in the future.
Rothman also maintains connections with Four Diamonds families and has watched THON children grow up into her personal friends.
“You want to do everything you can to take what’s the scariest moment of their family's life and make it somewhat bearable,” Rothman says. “THON not only changed my life, what I do for a living, but also gave me those personal connections and I never really lost that.”
Founder, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences THON
Associate Director of Data Integration Services, Accuweather
With the decline of canning as a THON fundraiser, Eric Michielli is using his connections to enable a new means of fundraising for the organization he founded as a student in 2003.
Michielli, who works full-time at Accuweather and moonlights as a Beaver Stadium usher on football weekends, secured spots for Earth and Mineral Sciences THON members as ushers this past fall. In exchange for their time, the university donated to the organization.
The trial run went well and he’s hoping to expand the opportunity to more THON organizations next year.
“It’s a different way for them to raise money and an opportunity for the students to talk about THON as they connect with patrons in the stadium,” he says.
Michielli says he looks to the students to determine what his involvement in THON should be. He does not want to come across as overbearing, but still be available as a resource if needed. In addition to making the Beaver Stadium connection, he’s helped establish connections to other alumni from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences who can donate to THON.
He does regret that current Penn State students will not get to experience canning in the way that he did 15 years ago. He says some of his best friends and best college memories were made on those long car trips and sleeping on the floor of someone’s home for the weekend.
“There were a lot of inside jokes, and you really got to know people well,” he says. “The big question now is how to raise money without canning being the primary focus.”
2004 THON Overall Chair
Financial Advisor, Wienken & Associates
Adam Duff had some big shoes to fill when he came to Penn State. His brother, Marty, was the Nittany Lion mascot from 1998-2000. He recalls seeing THON for the first time through his brother and knowing that he had to get involved.
“I remember seeing family hour as a high school kid and very quickly falling in love with everything about it,” Duff says.
Duff grew up in suburban Philadelphia, but fell in love with Happy Valley and now considers it to be his adopted home. He’s served on the Four Diamonds Foundation board, volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters in State College, and served on the board for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
Duff says one of his biggest accomplishments during his year as overall chair was bringing Four Diamonds children on stage to hold signs during the fundraising total reveal at the end of the weekend. While the kids rarely did what organizers wanted them to, having them on stage helped bridge the THON families with the money that was being raised to support them.
“I remember seeing a picture of the total from the year before and thinking there was something missing,” Duff says. “That missing piece was the Four Diamonds kids.”
He also worked with the THON finance committee that year to do a better job tracking small-scale contributions. Duff was a finance major and knew that making the donor pool as robust as possible was one way to ensure that the fundraising total remained strong.
While some THON leaders go on to careers at nonprofits or in the public sector, Duff took a different path as a financial advisor. He understands the impact that cancer and other illnesses can have on a family and works with his clients to make sure that they are financially prepared to handle whatever comes their way.
“Ultimately what I’m passionate about is working with individuals and business on helping them secure their retirement and their family’s future,” Duff says. “We get compensated for what we do but there’s a lot of work we do with families but on a personal level.”
2013 THON Overall Chair
Speech Language Pathologist, Pittsburgh Public Schools
This year’s THON will be a reunion for Will Martin and the rest of his executive committee. It is the five-year anniversary of his year as overall chair, which means the last chance to do the line dance on stage during THON weekend.
Martin described the overall chair role (now called executive director) as a two-year role, with the first year spent running THON day-to-day and the second year serving as a sounding board to the executive director who came after him.
While the formal ties to THON end after a few years, the connections between leaders remain strong for years to come.
“It’s a unique position where only so many people know what it’s like,” Martin says. “If there’s a specific experience that one of us might have had that could be helpful to the current executive director, they’ll reach out even if it’s been a few years since that person was in the role.”
Martin came to Penn State to study Communication Sciences and Disorders, which is the prerequisite major to becoming a speech language pathologist. He earned the master’s degree required for clinical certification at the University of Pittsburgh, and now works in the Pittsburgh public school system.
In that position, he frequently has to juggle multiple roles and maintain communication channels with teachers, parents and administrators.
“I learned that communication is important, both with those on the same level as you and administrators and supervisors,” “Martin says. “It doesn’t matter what level of position you are; it’s the relationship you build with people. What I always remember and what I always take away from my THON experience is meeting a lot of different people from the university.”
Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer and journalism instructor in State College.