Clearing a Career Track for Brain-Injured Students
They face not only the challenges of a competitive job market, but also the after-effects of their injury, making it harder for them to succeed. They may suffer short-term memory loss, difficulty with planning and scheduling their classes and work, and mood disorders. If they had a spinal cord injury, their mobility may be impaired. Sometimes they have overanxious parents who discourage them from setting high goals. Often they do not have the prior work experience – summer jobs and internships – that other college students rely on to give them a competitive edge in the job market.
A five-year pilot program starting in 2014 at Kent State University, supported by a $2.3 million Department of Education grant, will apply new technology and older, proven techniques to help up to 150 college students – some of them veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – overcome the effects of TBI and launch their careers.
“They’re highly motivated – they’re in college,” said Phillip D. Rumrill, Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Disability Studies at Kent State and the principal investigator. “We’ve got to help them catch up,” he said. Over five years, the program will address all the issues that would be limitations for these students. It will help them build their skills, confidence and career prospects. The project team will work intensively with the students in their college years and follow up with them as they enter the job market.
Brain Trauma Incidence RisesRumrill, an expert on rehabilitation and a widely published researcher, said the incidence of traumatic brain injury is highest among young adults, particularly among males, ages 16 to 25. It can result from automobile or motorcycle accidents, sports activities, high-risk behavior such as drinking- or drug- related accidents or war injuries.
It’s on the increase, too. During the war in Vietnam, for every soldier who died, three were injured, compared with 14 injured for every death in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more powerful explosives caused concussions in soldiers as far as a mile away from a blast.
“The concussion injuries they’re getting have been unknown to medical science,” Rumrill said.
Gunshots to the head and football-related head injuries also are increasing. As medical techniques improve, people who once would have died from an accident now survive injuries to the brain.
Overall, the incidence of TBI is low, but it disproportionately affects young people. Rumrill’s study will focus on young adults with mild to moderate TBI. “Mild” is a somewhat misleading term, he pointed out – the person still may have cognitive skill impairment. Those with TBI may show socially inappropriate behavior or have poor judgment skills and may suffer from physical impairments. They may also suffer from bipolar disorder, mood swings and anxiety. Frustration is common as they try to catch up with their college peers.
Tailoring Support to Students’ NeedsStudents in the project will be equipped with iPads programmed with applications that can help them plan and schedule their day and remind them of tasks that they need to perform. The iPads will function as “cognitive support devices” and will serve as virtual coaches. The students also will receive one-on- one counseling and mentoring and vocational rehabilitation services that have been developed at Kent State’s Center for Disability Studies.
Since 1965, Kent State has graduated more than 1,000 master’s degree students in its graduate rehabilitation program, and many of them work in rehabilitation services in Northeast Ohio. Some of the current graduate students associated with the Center will work with the brain injured undergraduates.
The students who have suffered brain trauma will get intensive career counseling, internships and work experience with employers who are signed up to hire the disabled. Job placements will be tailored to their situation. They’ll get help finding the services and equipment they need in class and on the job.
“We’ll run interference to alleviate any concern an employer might have,” said Rumrill.
The program also will educate disabled students about their legal rights and help them find mentors– sometimes, people who also have their type of disability – to encourage and motivate them.
A Model for the NationThe 150 students in the project will be drawn from area campuses – Kent State, the University of Akron, Youngstown State, Cleveland State, and community colleges, for example. Fifty students from Ohio and 50 each from collaborating centers at the University of West Virginia and Boston University will be served in the program over five years.
The goal is to improve what are now poor outcomes for these students, Rumrill said. While 85 percent of four-year college graduates find employment nationwide, only 30 to 35 percent of the brain-injured do. Their drop-out rate in college is higher, too.
By applying the principles of vocational rehabilitation to practice for brain-injured students and working with them intensively, Rumrill hopes to develop and refine a model that can be implemented nationwide. What is learned in the project also will inform the curriculum for graduate students in rehabilitation here, he said.
While the population of brain-injured young people is growing, its needs in higher education and the job market have not yet been addressed, Rumrill noted.
“We’ve got to help make up for this.”
“This innovative method of academic enrichment and career enhancement will substantially improve the bleak employment outcomes that presently await civilian and veteran students with TBI following the completion of their college training.” (Phillip Rumrill, Ph.D.)