Section: archive

On the court, calculus and community collide

On the court, calculus and community collide

By Nina Zimmerman

As soon as the clock strikes four, she heads down the hill from her classroom to the Kenyon Athletic Center where coaches and players alike notice her energy as she dives for volleyballs far out of her reach. No, she’s not one of the players, but rather one of the coaches.

Calculus cannot compute the impact that Assistant Professor of Mathematics Elly Smith has made since she began assisting the Kenyon volleyball team over a year and a half ago.

Smith initially joined the Ladies in 2011 to serve as an extra player during scrimmages. This season she became an official coach, cementing her already powerful presence with the team. Smith’s role on the team has transformed from passionate volunteer to volunteer assistant coach.

The daughter of a high school volleyball coach, Smith played both volleyball and tennis while earning her Bachelor of Science degree at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. After relocating to Fort Collins, Colo. for graduate school at Colorado State University, Smith resumed playing volleyball in adult leagues while simultaneously playing on Colorado State’s club tennis team.

After joining the Kenyon math department in 2010, Smith confronted the challenge of finding a place to play the sport she grew up with. “Mount Vernon is a small town, so there’s not a lot of volleyball going on, and so really I just came to the [Kenyon] team looking for some volleyball,” Smith said.

Shortly after arriving in Gambier, Smith jumped at the chance to introduce herself to Head Coach Katie Charles and offer to help out with practices. Smith began helping the Ladies scrimmage during spring practices, when the team is usually undermanned because seniors no longer play and juniors go abroad. The two entities, professor and team, clicked in motion like a powerful serve. Smith said when she returned to the court with the Ladies, it really hit her how much she had missed volleyball.

Defining Smith’s precise function is much like attempting one of the complex equations she teaches, especially when contextualized with the roles of Charles and Assistant Coach Calvin Bruce.

“It’s a different perspective to have,” MaryJo Scott ’14 said. “She’s not as vocal as our coaches obviously, but she does give encouragement and she works really hard, which makes all of us be like, ムAlright, if Elly’s working that hard, we need to step our game up and work really hard in the gym too.’ナ She fills a role that [Bruce and Charles] don’t fill. ナ It’s different because she’s on the court with us.”

“Her interaction with them is definitely much more personal, and I think that definitely is one of the biggest pieces of why Elly is good for our program,” Charles said. “Elly has that ability to kind of bridge the gap.”

Co-captain Sierra DeLeon ’14, a four-year starter who has watched Smith since she began playing with the Ladies, called Smith’s presence in the gym “a breath of fresh air” in the midst of a rough patch for the team. “When she would come and play with us she would dive for balls and roll all over the floor and be really into it,” DeLeon said. “And she’d be like, ムGuys, let’s go.’ She would go for everything and it was just like, wow, we haven’t seen this in a while, like, this is something we need to model after.”

“Like most faculty here, I find it a challenge to balance my professional life with my hobbies,” Smith said. “And so it was really exciting to come back to something that I love that I hadn’t seen in a long time.”

While balancing her work schedule around volleyball practice, Smith felt the simultaneous enrichment of her own experience as a faculty member at Kenyon, which prides itself on its close-knit community devoted to cultivating the experience of its students.

Direct community involvement in athletics is not something that typically characterizes college athletics, even in Division III. Rather, it is a result of small liberal arts colleges like Kenyon, which emphasize the all-around development of students.

Smith said her involvement in the Kenyon volleyball program is one example of faculty support for the on-field efforts of students. A group of professors, including Smith, occasionally scrimmages against the men’s and women’s tennis teams. Professor of Humanities Tim Shutt’s involvement in the swimming program spans decades.

Shutt and Smith are just two examples of Kenyon community members who prove they aren’t afraid to devote their time and energy. After swimming at Kenyon for four years, Associate Director of Admissions Adrienne Amador ’09 joined the College’s admissions team and spent some time volunteering with the Mount Vernon High School swim team before returning as an extra hand on deck for her alma mater.

“I think faculty and staff members are contributing to the greater community above and beyond clearly defined responsibilities in any of our jobs,” Amador said. “That seems to be very ムKenyon’ to me, that people would want to join in and participate in ways that they find interesting and fulfilling. And for me, that’s giving back to a swimming program.”

Head Swimming Coach Jess Book has a lot of experience within the Kenyon athletic community, from his days as a swimmer under then-Head Coach Jim Steen to his current role at the helm of the same program for which he once competed. In addition to Amador, Book named several other community members who have had an impact on the swim team with their time and presence, including Athletic Director Peter Smith and Director of Donor Relations Kristina Caldwell ’84, whose daughter Kellyn Caldwell ’12 swam for the Ladies. Book added that a few years ago, he branched out into the community by volunteering with the Outdoors Pre-Orientation program.

“The professors who choose to teach here and the staff that choose to work here, they do so in part because they believe in that kind of community,” Book said. “And so when they have opportunities to give back in other ways, they’re typically quick to jump at them. It’s just nice to connect with people in different environments and share a different side of yourself.”

Charles said that she sees the same spirit in Smith. “I think her energy and how much she cares about the students and how much she cares about the success of everything here from academics to athletics is really nice,” Charles said. “It’s been fantastic to have somebody who believes in the overall mission of academics and athletics, understands where it fits.”

[starbox id=”NinaZimmerman”]


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at