Student Stories: Biological Engineering grad a volleyball standout
Even though he often missed a few hours of volleyball practice a week due to academic class requirements — an unusual exception not granted to most players — Penn State outside hitter Joe Sunder was on top of his game both on and off the court.
A Greensburg, Pa., native — who just graduated this month with a degree in biological engineering — Sunder was a four-year team starter after redshirting as a freshman. His stellar collegiate career came to an end May 3 when Penn State lost to top-seeded University of California at Irvine in the semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship. Penn State was making its 14th straight appearance in the NCAA final four.
In typical fashion, Sunder closed out the match with 15 kills to lead his team. Looking back, he never even dreamed of being a college volleyball standout. "My senior year of high school, I was recruited by different schools to play basketball and volleyball, and I’d played basketball since I was five," he said.
"I was leaning more toward basketball at first. But I am so glad that I came to Penn State — I received a better education here."
Sunder said his sister was the first to play the sport in his family because his middle school did not have a team for guys. He practiced with her off the court for fun. But by the time ninth grade rolled around, Sunder joined his high school’s boy’s volleyball team. "It clicked from there," he said.
And the signs of imminent prestige in the sport came soon after.
He was part of the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team at the world championships, first as a redshirt freshman and then as a sophomore, in El Salvador and India. "As a redshirt freshman, I had no idea how I compared to anyone in the rest of the country, so I just went out there and jumped right in," Sunder said.
He added that attending those events — he was the only one from east of the Mississippi to be selected for the United States team for the tournament in India — was a pretty big confidence-booster. Not to mention, the team did well, with Sunder leading in points.
Academically, Sunder recalls that he first was attracted to the biological engineering major because he was interested in natural resources, which was the focus of much of his coursework. "Obviously they’re something we’ll always need, many are running out and we must manage them efficiently," he said. "I can see myself doing something with the development of shale natural gas."
Sunder said he was contacted by agents this spring about playing volleyball professionally, listing opportunities in Europe, Puerto Rico and Asia. "I’d be happy going anywhere, and I’m planning to play professionally abroad," he said.
Because of missing practice sometimes to meet academic obligations, and missing classes for matches, Sunder put in extra effort to be an exemplary student athlete. "When I had to leave early, I went to practice early," he said. "As much as I could handle the ball during the season was helpful."
He noted that he’ll always value the time spent with his teammates. "It was nice every year having 16 best friends," he said. "In my five years here, I’ve gotten to know 50 different guys on the team that I can call and talk to or visit somewhere. I would just like them to be able to look back and say that I was a good leader and someone that they could look up to."
Sunder expected graduation to open a door to travel opportunities and playing volleyball abroad. Knee surgery will put a bit of a damper on his plans for a short time, requiring anywhere from six to eight weeks of recovery before he can compete again.
"Technically in the game, the surgery will put me back a little in terms of ball control," he said. "The feel is different after taking weeks off. But I will be OK and come back quickly."
He hopes to pursue a career in his agricultural sciences field closely correlated with his natural resources specialization. All the same, he’s in no rush.
"Everyone I talk to says, ‘Don’t rush into work; play as long as you can.’"