Despite four years away from the game, Jennifer Harvey joined the VCU Volleyball team last fall.

Jennifer Harvey is discovering some caveats of medical school they don’t talk about in the brochure.

“I’m finding it difficult to eat after staring at a cadaver all day,” she deadpanned.

Those types of challenges are what separate Harvey from the average VCU student-athlete. The 22-year-old Roanoke, Va. native is an outlier in nearly every sense of the word. There’s nothing average about her.

For the last four years, Harvey played soccer at Virginia Tech, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She was no slouch on the field, accumulating 44 career points. She ranks eighth in school history with 18 goals and was presented with the team’s MVP award as a senior. She was named Academic All-America in 2010 and to the ACC All-Academic Team three times.

That’s one heck of a career right there, the kind you tell your kids when you’re gathered around the dinner table at night. Not Jennifer Harvey. She decided to write an epilogue too. Harvey is attending medical school on VCU’s MCV Campus, but decided to also play volleyball for the Rams during the fall.

Student-athletes are given five years to compete in four seasons of any given sport. Harvey used up her soccer eligibility in four years, but as long as she was in college this year, she was eligible to play any other sport during the 2011-12 academic year. She chose volleyball, which she starred in at Cave Spring High School. In fact, her last competitive volleyball match before this fall was Cave Spring’s AA State Championship match in 2006 at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

If it sounds a little crazy to you, juggling the responsibilities of both a Division I athlete and medical school, it’s because it sounds that way to pretty much everybody else too. She’s believed to be the first person at VCU to even try it. Sometimes, it sounds crazy to her too.

“I haven’t been out in months,” Harvey said recently. “I was laughing with one of my classmates the other day. We said, ‘you know you’re in med school when you get excited for the weekend because you have time to study.’”

Not only is Harvey’s path not recommended by, well, anyone, some people have explicitly advised against it. Harvey says that Dr. Chris Woleben, Associate Dean of Student Affairs, warned her of a tough road ahead.

“He didn’t really know what to tell me,” Harvey said. “He told me that once I got to anatomy I would probably find it too much, but that if it would make me happy and a more balanced person, then I needed to make the decision on my own.”

Harvey didn’t have to do it. Perhaps this is how very successful people become just that. They invent challenges. Maybe it’s simpler. A trim, 5-foot-6, Harvey has always been an athlete, and a very good one at that. Last spring, with her soccer eligibility exhausted and her commitment fulfilled, she felt something missing. Maybe that’s why when her old high school and club coach, Tamalyn Tanis, called to tell her that VCU was looking for defensive specialists, she listened.

“I like to play and I’ve always played,” Harvey said. “It seemed weird last spring when I wasn’t doing anything. It seemed right to say, yeah, sure.”

Harvey estimates that she played virtually no competitive volleyball during her four years at Virginia Tech, not to mention that she played a different position, outside hitter, in high school. It was shaping up like some kind of masochistic stunt they wouldn’t try on Fear Factor.

VCU Volleyball Coach James Finley didn’t have to sign on for this wild experiment either. He goes to sleep dreaming about conference championships every night. This was risky for everyone. Would Harvey be overwhelmed? Would it become a distraction to the team? Finley didn’t need much time to decide. He welcomed her with open arms under one condition. She had to be absolutely serious.

Harvey starred on the soccer pitch for Virginia Tech from 2007-10.

“I said…this can’t be something you try out,” Finley recalled. “This has got to be a commitment for the semester because you’re going to be an integral part of the dynamics of our team, and we can’t lose that in the middle of the semester.”

Harvey would appear in eight matches for the Rams and average 1.46 digs per set, a reasonable mark, given her limited playing time. However, her true impact on the team can’t be easily quantified.

“It was great having somebody with that kind of commitment and that kind of work ethic because that’s such a great influence on our team as a whole, academically and athletically,” Finley said.

Since she started medical school in early August until VCU’s defeat in the CAA Championship Match Nov. 20, nearly every waking moment was dedicated to school or volleyball. Her medical school schedule forced her to miss certain practices and games, but Harvey always showed up ready to play as often as she could. There were a number of weekends that she left class on Friday and traveled to a match separately with another member of the volleyball staff.

Finley was impressed with not just her attitude, but her ability as well.

“She absolutely shocked us that her skill level was as high as it was because it was like she’s been playing for three years,” Finley said. “She just has such a natural ability to read and know where the ball’s going to go and she’s a phenomenal athlete.”

Harvey, whose dry wit often mingles with her pragmatic observations, wasn’t as complimentary in her assessment.

“It’s still a little bit frustrating because I feel like I was better four years ago than I am now,” she said. “Which is a little disappointing.”

Now that volleyball season has ended, Harvey has officially hung up her cleats, although nobody’s stopping her from playing intramural broomball or kayaking on the James River, if she’s so inclined.

Instead, she’ll focus on what is likely another three and a half years of med school, plus three or four more as a resident. She hasn’t made up her mind exactly what kind of doctor she’ll be, although she expressed an interest in both pediatrics and sports medicine.

“I know a lot of pediatricians who are role models,” Harvey said. “I think if I can be an inspiration to young girls, I think that would be really cool.”

Maybe it’s because she’s modest or just because she’s so darn busy, but it would be easy to find inspiration in an achiever like Harvey. But she doesn’t have time to think about that. She’s just looking for a little rest.

“I used to take naps all the time,” she joked. “I don’t really have time any more. If I had an hour to nap, I would.”

They probably didn’t put that in the brochure either.

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