Smeal students and alumni played critical roles in the record-setting year of the world’s largest student-run philanthropy.
When 2023 THON executive director Lily Pevoto is asked how it felt to shatter all previous THON fundraising totals with the $15 million raised this year, she immediately reframes the achievement from one of besting others to one of serving more.
“As leaders, it’s so important to keep the mission top of mind at all times,” says Pevoto, then a senior Schaefer Scholars student in Penn State Smeal’s Integrated Master of Accounting program. “15 million dollars is a huge number, but what it really means is that there are so many children who will get to have more happy memories with their families, those families will see no medical bill, and more innovative cancer research will be done. I’m really proud of that.”
THON — the annual fundraising endeavor for pediatric cancer nonprofit Four Diamonds that culminates in a 46-hour dance marathon spectacle in the Bryce Jordan Center — touches all corners of the Penn State community, with more than 16,000 student volunteers from every college and campus coming together each year for the cause. Smeal students and alumni are an integral part of that network of volunteers and donors, bringing not only a heart for the charity but also the breadth of leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills they’ve learned inside and outside the classroom.
Pevoto is the ninth Smeal student who has risen to the top THON leadership position in the past 25 years, giving Smeal the distinction of being the college producing the most executive directors in that time span. 2023 THON’s 17-member executive committee included eight Smeal students — again, the most of any college.
“I’m not sure if that’s a trend in the makeup of the executive committee, but our experience in Smeal has been a huge help in our ability to make THON better this year,” Pevoto says. “I’m in the Master’s of Accounting program, and integrated into the curriculum is a lot of data analytics, which has been a huge help this year for us to look critically at decisions we’re making regarding resource allocation and fundraising strategy.” Two of Pevoto’s integrated MAcc classmates, Rene Richardson (entertainment director) and George Lesher (finance director), were also on THON’s executive committee.
Donor and Alumni Relations Development Director Haskel Canagarajah, a senior majoring in finance with a minor in health policy and administration, headed up the team charged with finding and working with corporate partners and other donors willing to contribute to THON.
As part of that effort, Canagarajah led the launch of the Giving Society, a new initiative aimed at offering donors of different giving levels behind-the-scenes information and events that allow them to see the impact of their donations. The initiative culminated in a reception and a tour during THON weekend, during which society members met Four Diamonds families and the chair of pediatrics at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.
He says he enjoyed honing the skills learned in his management classes during his time on the executive committee. “In classes, you understand theory but that doesn’t always translate to what it’s like to be a leader. It’s a very reactive position,” says Canagarajah, who wanted to get involved in THON after seeing the toll cancer takes on families when his father battled the disease years ago. “One of the biggest lessons from class is that a leader always talks last, not first.”
“I’m a full-time student, and this position is a full-time job.”
Smeal alum Pam Turner brought her extensive leadership skills to the Four Diamonds Advisory Board, where she will finish her two-year term as chair at the end of this year. Turner earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1986 and retired this spring from her role as managing director at Capital One Healthcare. She served on a THON committee as a student in the mid-’80s and was inspired to get involved again when one of her daughters danced in THON in 2016 and another daughter was THON chair of a student organization.
The 12-member board advises the student-run THON organization, with Pevoto joining their bimonthly meetings to give updates and solicit feedback. “Lily is absolutely amazing,” says Turner, who’s been impressed with the student leader’s poise and professionalism while speaking to major sponsors. “A THON sponsor joked recently, ‘Is there any way we can we keep her for another year?’”
A member of the Penn State Smeal Finance Advisory Board, Turner wasn’t surprised that Smeal students made up almost half of the 2023 executive committee, and that the college’s students and alumni consistently contribute to THON’s success. “From my perspective as a finance major, it’s a very organization-driven role,” she says of executive director positions in THON. “You have to be extremely organized and methodical. I think it suits the mindset of a business major; that’s the way [our] minds work.”
Alumni Engagement Director Anna Yankanich, then a junior in supply chain and information systems, was introduced to THON through a Mini THON at her high school near Hershey, and knew she wanted to increase that involvement in college. Yankanich was undecided about where to focus her broad interest in business, but Robert Novack, associate professor of supply chain management and Paiste Fellow in Teaching, inspired her to study supply chain. “I love problem-solving, and [in supply chain] every day is something different.”
Yankanich led a committee of 15 captains and more than 100 committee members, which meant the bulk of the skills she used from her Smeal classes involved managing people — and herself. “I think I’ve learned a lot about time management,” she says. “There’s always something to do, always a problem to be solved and an email to be sent. I’ve learned how to budget my time and prioritize. I’m a full-time student and this position is a full-time job.”
Mentors in the college and in the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi offered support to the students as they navigated such significant leadership roles. Other Smeal students serving on the overall committee were finance major Justin Kauffman, merchandise director, and BS/MBA student Gwen Yetter, supply logistics director.
Being able to trust her executive committee made all the difference for Pevoto. “I got extremely lucky with the executive committee this year,” she says. “They are some of the most passionate and selfless people I’ve ever met.”
They’re also critical thinkers and eager learners, translating lessons learned in the classroom regarding business law, financial statements, professional communication, fundraising strategy, and so much more to their volunteer roles. Similarly, they have applied what they’ve learned experientially with THON to inform their work in class.
“Given the knowledge I’m learning in Smeal, THON was like a constant case study in the back of my head,” Pevoto says. “I have such gratitude for both organizations: Smeal for giving me the skills to succeed, and THON for enriching my student experience.”