I scheduled an interview with James Hartley ’23, an outside hitter for the men’s volleyball team, on election night. We were both glued to our screens before the call, watching the news coverage discussing the presidential candidates. It felt like a rather inopportune time to have an interview, but it led to a very natural first question.
“I’m a nanny, and I told the kids that tomorrow I’m going to either be sobbing and not want to play with them at all the whole day, or I’m going to be the funnest person ever. So yeah, I’m very stressed about it. Quite honestly,” he responded as the television played in the background.
As a North Carolina native, Hartley had the pleasure, or misfortune, of voting in a battleground state, and reflected a sentiment well-understood by millions of Americans. “Honestly, looking at the updates, the constant updates, kind of stresses me out,” he explained.
Hartley had chosen to take a leave of absence after his first year at Princeton. He initially considered taking his sophomore year online, but later began looking at the merits of a gap year. He struggled immensely with online learning in the spring and believed that a full year would be even harder.
“I was thinking about it. But, like, I couldn’t do online school. I couldn’t focus at all. My grades went down, and I PDF’d [took pass/D/fail] all my courses,” he recalled about his second semester.
His original plan for this fall had involved only vague ideas about what he wanted to do, but Hartley had not expected to spend most of his time this year as a nanny.
“I knew I wanted to be an EMT. I was trying to work at, like, Target until I was a certified EMT. And then this nanny job came up.”
As he talked, Hartley was preoccupied with something off-screen. I was curious, and he turned his camera to show a work-in-progress toy roller coaster set that spanned several dozen feet. It turns out that his nanny job involved more than just care-taking, as it required him to apply what he learned as a civil engineer to this structural marvel as well.
But what Hartley didn’t realize was how this job would affect him. He elaborated briefly about how this nanny job was more than just a source of income; it opened him up to the possibility of wanting children, a proposition he had not considered previously. He plans to hold this nanny job until the end of the academic year in June, when he hopes to obtain his EMT certification.
This gap year has been a very valuable experience for him. Finally having the time and opportunity to explore his interest in becoming an EMT, discovering this new passion has given him a goal to strive for.
“I love it,” he said. “I think I want to go to med school because of it, which is super cool for me because I’ve had such a broad range of majors and careers I’ve considered throughout high school, throughout all my schooling, basically. It's kind of nice to finally have something I know I truly love and want to pursue.”
But that did not mean Hartley was abandoning his CEE roots.
“I love civil engineering, too — like, structures and architecture and bridges and things like that [are] super fascinating to me. And even if I don’t go to medical school, I would still love to do that,” he said.
Volleyball has also been a priority for Hartley. He is now a head coach of the boys’ U14 team at his high school club volleyball team, Carolina UVC.
“They’re like my little babies, and they’re better than I thought they would be,” he said. “So I’m excited for the season, honestly. The challenge is just keeping them focused in practice, because they go off really quick. They’ll lose attention astonishingly quickly, which is not unexpected, though.”
In order to become a coach, he spoke about the tedious process of going through the USA Volleyball seminars and certifications. However, the hidden gem of the process was a section about player and coach philosophy and psychology, which fascinated Hartley. The experience has taught him how to better interact with his own coaches.
“The biggest thing I get from coaching is coach-player interactions and where coaches are coming from. Because sometimes, coaches get mad and frustrated, and over-coaching is a big thing. I don’t understand why they do that. But then now that I’m a coach, it’s a very natural tendency to want to just correct everything you see wrong. But it’s not necessarily the right way to go about things,” he explained.
Aside from coaching, which prevents him from attending weekly meetings with the rest of Princeton’s team, Hartley spends three days a week playing in local volleyball leagues, competing in open tournaments with Division II volleyball players in North Carolina. But playing volleyball back home lacked much of the competitive spirit Hartley experienced in his first year on Princeton’s team.
“I'm looking forward to getting back in the gym at Princeton with the guys, for sure,” he said. “Playing volleyball in open gyms by yourself — that's one thing, and it’s fine. It’s great. But I feel like it’s just for fun, and not really getting better at volleyball. Being in that gym environment where I can improve and get better at the sport — I miss that.”
Academically, Hartley is looking forward to his coursework next fall. He explained that he had finished his required math classes and would be able to delve into a more engineering-focused course load, which was more “practical and hands-on and works better with [his] brain.”
Though Hartley misses the Princeton life that he experienced before the pandemic, he has been hugely satisfied with how his leave of absence has turned out.
“This gap year — not just with [coming to] the medical school decision, and with coaching expanding my volleyball horizons — this gap year has been far beyond anything I thought it would be.”