UNIVERSITY PARK Pa. — In a way, a serious knee injury brought Nathan P. Smith to Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College.
Now, the freshman men’s volleyball player, who is enrolled in the Eberly College of Science, hopes to parlay his Schreyer experience into a career that allows him to help other athletes recover from similar injuries.
In April 2015, Smith collided with one of his teammates on the court and tore the meniscus in his knee. He underwent surgery five days later but wasn’t able to return to action until December. By that point, most of the players in his class had already committed to various schools.
Playing collegiate volleyball at the highest level had long been important to Smith, but so was finding an institution with strong academics, one with a quality premedicine program in particular. The Los Altos, California, native was considering UCLA, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego and had received an offer from the latter but in January, after a tournament in Chicago, he was contacted by Penn State Assistant Coach Colin McMillan.
“It (Penn State) just hadn’t been on my radar, just because it was so far away,” he said. “But I started looking into the program and just having this big school and learning about the honors college, it seemed like a really, really good fit.”
Smith didn’t know anything about Schreyer until McMillan told him about it, and then “I really liked the idea of a small school in a big school,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much I would like it until I got here."
Smith visited Penn State in April and liked the way his future volleyball teammates and coaches encouraged his dream of becoming a doctor. His interactions with the students who would be his peers at Schreyer might have sealed the deal.
“Meeting the people in Schreyer was the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Having a group of people that are super-articulate, they’re all very driven...it’s just a good community to be around.”
Smith was somewhat of a reluctant entry into the volleyball world, but his mother, Fan Liu, urged him to try it, and he was already 6-foot-2 in the seventh grade. He began as a middle hitter, moved to outside hitter and, because no one else on the team could do it, became the setter on his high school team, quickly embracing the mental demands of the position.
“You get to choose who’s hitting, who’s on, who’s off, you’re looking at the block,” he said. “You have to be a lot more cerebral, and I like that.”
Liu also encouraged Smith and his younger sister, Anna, to play musical instruments. He started with the erhu (Chinese violin), while Anna played the guzheng (Chinese zither). Nathan decided he liked the guzheng, which is a similar to a harp, better. He has performed at museums, senior centers and school talent shows but often likes to play for no one at all.
“It’s such a beautiful instrument,” he said. “It’s got a lot of character, too, in the different styles of play you can do. It was never really something I played as the main thing I did. I’d go in for 45 minutes or an hour a day and just release into it. It’s a way to get your mind to flow and to concentrate.”
Smith’s duties as a setter came with the occasional jammed pinky finger, but he rarely used that finger to play the guzheng. The 8-foot-long instrument didn’t make the cross-country trip to State College this summer, but Smith sees parallels between the two disciplines.
“While I’m practicing volleyball, I’m always thinking about how I can do things better, and then when I go into the game, it’s just playing,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing with an instrument. You’re being really self-aware as you’re playing, trying to be mindful of what you’re doing. And then you go out there and get to play, and it’s really wonderful.”
Smith said the volleyball team’s weightlifting program has allowed his knee to return to full strength, and he’s looking forward to his upcoming freshman season, which begins in January. The assistance and peace of mind he got from his orthopedic surgeon during the recovery process only cemented his desire to get into sports medicine someday.
“It was a really emotional event for me,” he said. “Being able to help people going through that would be something I’d want to do in the future.”