THON chair juggles multiple roles

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- If you ask Will Martin what he's up to right now, chances are he's sorting out last-minute details for THON weekend -- now just a week away. For example, he may be investigating who will provide security at the dance marathon, how frequently the bathrooms will be cleaned or which donors plan to visit. Then again, he could be meeting with President Erickson to give the latest updates on preparations for THON weekend, attending a meeting of the advisory board of the Four Diamonds Fund or talking with reporters about his hopes for this year's fundraising effort.

As overall chairperson for the world's largest student-run philanthropy, Martin has had these types of tasks and more to deal with this past year. Yet through all of the meetings, some of which extended into the wee hours of the morning, and all of the myriad fundraising tasks, he has managed to excel outside of THON -- in his courses, in his research and in his preparations for the future.

"Time management is very important," said Martin, a senior majoring in communication sciences and disorders. "It can be hard because at first all you want to do is THON stuff, but at the same time you have academics. I speak for all the volunteers when I say that THON inspires us; we're so motivated we wouldn't want to be doing anything else."

Despite his excitement about leading some 15,000 students who are raising money for and awareness of pediatric cancer, Martin has spent a significant amount of time this year focused on preparing for his future career as a speech-language pathologist.

Much of the effort has been aimed at conducting research on language and social-cognitive development in preschoolers. Specifically, he and his adviser Carol Miller, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, are investigating children's abilities to manage information and action so as to produce the right response at the right time. They also are examining "theory of mind," or the understanding that people have mental states (thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc.), that these mental states motivate their behavior and that different people can have different mental states about the same thing (e.g., even though I don't like carrots I can understand that you do and would eat a carrot if given the choice). In addition, Martin and Miller are investigating different ways of measuring language ability in children.

"We are testing preschoolers in two age groups -- roughly 3 1/2 years old to 4 years old and 4 1/2 years old to 5 years old -- to see how the younger and older groups differ in terms of their language and social-cognitive abilities," said Martin, who is helping with all phases of the research project, including training the other lab assistants; coordinating schedules; and collecting, scoring and recording data.

"Will is the most experienced of my current students when it comes to collecting data from children," said Miller. "I'm very pleased with his work. Of course I know he's working hard for THON, but he is able to focus on his work for me and fulfill his obligations in both 'jobs' without them interfering with each other."

Martin's coursework and research have set him on the path to attend graduate school with an ultimate goal of becoming a speech-language pathologist, but it has been his experience running THON that has convinced him this is the right path.

"Serving as overall chairperson for THON has reinforced that I want to work with people," said Martin, who added that he is particularly interested in helping adults who have lost their ability to communicate to relearn communication skills. "I've learned that having strong relationships with your coworkers, colleagues, clients, supporters and members is a huge part of the success of any operation. THON has taught me how to work with different people from different backgrounds and different experiences. When you respect people and have a strong relationship with them you're going to succeed."

No doubt success -- on the order of millions of dollars raised for pediatric cancer -- is just around the corner, but success of a different kind also is on the horizon for Martin who currently is awaiting word from the several graduate programs to which he applied for entry next fall.

In the meantime, he is busy going over the numbers with THON's financial adviser, helping the Four Diamonds Fund decide how to allocate its funds, and preparing to train next year's overall chairperson. The work -- and that of all the other THON volunteers and donors -- will undoubtedly change people's lives. Yet, Martin is quick to admit that he too has received much from the effort.

"The leadership experience that I've gained through working in THON is remarkable," he said.

And it is that leadership experience -- combined with his academic achievements -- that will set Martin apart as he pursues his future goals.

Last Updated April 27, 2013