In March, the men’s volleyball team had yet to finish their season before the semester quickly turned to chaos. While men’s volleyball begins in December, their league matches are played in the spring. On March 11, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports for the remainder of the season. On March 12, the University mandated that all students return home for the remainder of the academic year.
For many athletes, this week was a blur. It was a week of saying goodbye to graduating seniors, a week of considering what this meant for their eligibility, and a week of quickly packing their things to move out.
Joe Kelly, a member of the men’s volleyball team, recalls understanding the reason for the decision in March, despite being frustrated that he couldn’t finish out his junior season. The men’s volleyball team was coming off of winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship in 2019 and carried a 7–2 league record this season.
It wasn’t until the Ivy League announced that all fall sports were canceled that many athletes begin considering taking the 2020–21 academic year off.
Kelly, along with several of his teammates, made the decision to take a leave of absence this academic year. For Kelly, now ’22, it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
“It seemed like a crazy idea, a whole year away from school, and it wasn’t until my dad suggested taking more time to think about it that I really considered it,” Kelly said. “I started weighing the pros and cons and the only con I could think of was not graduating in the same class as my friends. But then at the same time, it's not like I was going to be at school with friends anyway.”
He also considered what taking a leave of absence would mean for his volleyball career, ultimately favoring his chances at having a final season in 2021–22.
“I talked to some of my teammates very closely to get their opinions, but ultimately, it was a pretty big decision for each of us to make,” Kelly explained. “Our coach let us know that he would support us no matter what we did because as the current team, he will always support us.”
Kelly decided to use this year off to reset and set the foundation for his future. He explained that because of COVID-19, he wasn’t able to complete the summer internship he had lined up. He is instead using his leave of absence to focus on recruiting for an internship in finance next summer while he currently works in real estate development.
“I was nervous coming into my gap year but I think the opportunities that I knew were there outweighed any nervousness that I had,” Kelly explained, elaborating on his emotions going into his leave of absence without any plans. “But it's definitely a daunting situation, right? With just a blank canvas, on your own to figure out what to do with it.”
When talking about his future plans and the process of recruitment for the next internship cycle, Kelly explained his decision to pursue investment banking.
“Talking to a lot of alumni, I got their opinions and it seemed like investment banking, generally, was harder up front but opened more doors down the road. After a couple years, you have a stronger technical skill base compared to other areas of finance,” he explained.
Kelly has decided to take full advantage of the time that he currently has without having to focus on school or extracurriculars.
“As soon as I can wrap something up with recruiting for next summer, I am going to try to take some time and visit some friends of mine,” he explained. “To me, this is one of the only opportunities to travel because so far, I have just been staying home without many responsibilities.”
For the time being though, Kelly is taking advantage of being in the Los Angeles area and having access to beaches with volleyball courts.
“Unfortunately, with no gyms being open, there hasn’t been any opportunity to play any indoor volleyball but I have had a chance to play some beach volleyball,” Kelly said, touching on staying active during COVID-19. “Actually, a group of incoming freshmen on our team have a house together, around where I live, so I've been able to meet up with them a couple times and play a little beach volleyball to just stay moving.”
The men’s volleyball team also aims to push one another and hold each other accountable. Kelly explained that they send photos and videos to their teammates whenever they work out. Their lifting coach has put together a program for all of the members of the team, though for liability reasons, it isn’t available to players taking a gap year. This doesn’t stop the players on gap years from putting together their own training programs, however.
Outside of pushing each other in the gym, the team uses Zoom as a means for maintaining team unity.
“We meet on Zoom at least once a week and catch up on current world issues and talk about how we are doing. We also meet in our position groups to do film sessions,” Kelly explained. “We’re staying engaged as a team and still trying to think about volleyball.”
Kelly and the men’s volleyball team are another example of Princeton athletes taking advantage of leaves of absence to advance their programs and their own careers.
For Kelly, like many others, this leave of absence has been a time to focus on himself and his future, despite the difficulty in coming to this decision.
“I knew at the very least I was giving myself an opportunity or a chance.”