For bioengineering senior Tanella, it's a marathon to make THON happen

February 13, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Penn State student Elaine Tanella heads to campus, she knows that she is going to have a busy day; not because of a heavy course load, but because she runs the largest student-run philanthropy in the world: the Penn State Dance Marathon, commonly known as THON.

A fifth-year bioengineering senior, she serves as the 2012 THON overall chairwoman, a year-long position which includes responsibilities such as outlining goals and new ideas for this weekend's upcoming dance marathon (Feb. 17-19), as well as overseeing more than 15,000 volunteers who make THON happen. It is no small task to run a philanthropy that has raised more than $78 million for the Four Diamonds Fund since its inception in 1977.

To fulfill this role, she dedicates 60 hours a week to THON-related meetings, events, planning and receptions. THON is her full-time job.

Tanella, who will graduate in May, readily shares that she is not a morning person and avoids scheduling morning meetings. She says her average day starts around 11 a.m. when she heads to campus for a day full of THON preparation.

"I generally have four to eight or nine meetings a day. It varies from day to day," Tanella explained. Many "parts" must work together to bring THON to realization every year: student leaders, student volunteers, student organizations, alumni groups, the Office of University Development, the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Physical Plant, Bryce Jordan Center officials, Four Diamonds Fund representatives, donors and THON families, just to name a few.

"My position is all about relationship management and working with other people towards a common goal," Tanella said.

Between her meetings and in the early evening, Tanella makes time to answer an estimated 150 to 200 emails per day.

"I prefer to have meetings though," she explained. "It's easier to accomplish things in person." She also takes time to talk to anyone who walks into the THON office in 210 HUB with questions for her. These informal meetings happen often, but Tanella does not seem to mind. A self-proclaimed people person, she likes interacting with the students, staff and faculty that help make THON happen.

Tanella works on campus late into the night, making sure that every email has been responded to and all of her day's tasks are finished. "I'm a night owl," Tanella laughed. "I'm your typical college student, so that part doesn't bother me."

Her commitment to THON does not rest on the weekend either; her weekends are busy with attending THON events, conducting meetings and answering the emails in her constantly expanding inbox. On Sundays, while most students are relaxing or catching up on their homework, Tanella is on campus meeting with the 14 other students who make up the 2012 THON overall committee to strategize and plan for upcoming THON events and THON weekend.

Tanella, the 2009-10 recipient of the Howard J. Waltemeyer scholarship, says that her engineering education prepared her to be able to handle the hectic schedule that repeats itself every week. "The course load I had taught me the importance of time management and helped me learn to prioritize and manage multiple projects," she explains.

More important, Tanella says that engineering taught her how to be a problem-solver, a skill she uses every day as the THON overall chair. She knows that in engineering, every problem, big or small, is relevant and needs to be addressed, and the same goes for THON. "I am able to analyze things from different perspectives. Engineering prepares you to be a realist, to be practical, but to think ahead and think outside the box," she explained.

Thinking outside the box has proved to be an invaluable skill for Tanella in addressing the problems that arise while organizing an event as large at THON.

Upon graduation, Tanella will enter the consulting field working for Accenture, a career path that was inspired not just by her education but also by her experiences with THON. "The interaction with people, through THON, taught me how to work in groups, like overcoming different dynamics between people and presenting ideas in a clear and coherent manner." Tanella explained, "I used to hate public speaking, but now I like it. So I wanted to do something where I could talk to people and interact with people every day."

Right now, though, post-graduation plans are far from the top of Tanella's priority list. Instead, all of her focus is on Feb. 17-19, a weekend she has been working to bring to realization for a year.

"I think I'm ready," Tanella said confidently. She is expecting a weekend filled with interacting with donors, families, kids, student organizations and volunteers. Tanella is excited to see her hard work, and the hard work of the thousands of other volunteers, culminate in the 46 hours of THON 2012. Tanella said, "I'm looking forward to see students from all over the Commonwealth, and supporters from all over the nation, come together in the Bryce Jordan Center for one reason: to join the fight against pediatric cancer."

For more information about or to donate to THON, visit

  • Elaine Tanella, overall chair for THON in 2012

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 15, 2012