As a seventh grader, Sushma Santhana (24BSE), like many in Eastern Iowa, prayed for Austin “Flash” Schroeder, a 14-year-old who battled and succumbed to a form of T-cell lymphoma in 2014.
Inspired by Flash, Santhana volunteered with Dance Marathon and started a Dance Marathon chapter, which raised $130,000 during her time at the newly opened Liberty High School. Now a rising senior studying biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa (UI), Santhana has been named executive director of UI Dance Marathon 30.
“I wasn’t originally planning to apply because it seems like a big commitment,” Santhana said. “After the event in February, it was such a great experience and I met so many great families. That gave me the push to want to do more.”
UI is one of five founding institutions of Dance Marathon, a student-run organization centered around an annual 24-hour event in which volunteer dancers raise money for pediatric cancer research and to support pediatric cancer patients and their families.
UI Dance Marathon has raised over $34 million, including pledging $5 million to name the 11th floor of the Stead Family Children’s Hospital the University of Iowa Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center. Santhana’s task is much more than overseeing the “big” event. It is a year-round effort of outreach, attracting sponsors, holding smaller events, meetings, and more.
Santhana leads a 200-person team of student leaders – including 13 directors and 40 chairpersons – and works with two professional staff to put on the event, which attracts approximately 1,000 participants annually. The next dance will be the second to return to in person after two years of virtual events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A priority this year is connecting student dancers with families, such as through volunteering at the hospital, so the students can truly see the impact of Dance Marathon, as Santhana has been able to experience. Santhana’s passion for making a difference for cancer patients extends beyond Dance Marathon into her professional aspirations. She is focused on becoming an engineer who designs medical devices specifically for children with cancer.
“I see Dance Marathon as providing emotional support for children and families when they feel the world is terrible,” the North Liberty native said. “And then on other side as an engineer, I can approach it by making devices that support them physically.”