Supporting College Students with Traumatic Brain Injuries for Academic and Employment Success



The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the United States Department of Education, NIDRR grant #H133A130066. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and readers should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Phillip Rumrill, Center for Disability Studies, Kent State University, 413 White Hall, P.O. box 5190, Kent, OH, USA, 44242-0001. E-mail:

Project Career – a federally funded (Administration for Community Living (ACL) National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDDLRR) 5-year demonstration project – makes use of positive psychology interventions (PPIs) to improve academic and employment outcomes for undergraduate students with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The Project pairs cognitive support technology (CST) – e.g., iPad and supporting applications – and vocational rehabilitation and mentoring to provide individualize support for each student enrolled.

––––––––––––––– INTRODUCTION –––––––––––––––

The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania defines positive psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are treatment methods and intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviors or cognitions (Sin, 2009). Institutions of higher education are increasingly implementing positive psychology as a model for helping students focus on abilities and qualities instead of on their problems or limitations (Parks, 2011).

Rehabilitation counseling and other human services fields have often been criticized for emphasizing deficit-reduction and the medical model of disability (Smart, 2009), while positive psychology holds that “treatment is not just fixing what is broken. Rather, it is nurturing what is best” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p.5). Rehabilitation scholars and providers are identifying that positive psychology is compatible with consumer empowerment, independence, self-advocacy, and self-determination, (Chapin, 2012; Chou, Chan, Chan, & Phillips, 2013; Rubin & Roessler, 2008; Rumrill & Koch, 2014; Scherer, 2012; Strauser, 2013; Toriello & Keferl, 2012; Wehman, 2013).

Project Career – a 5-year demonstration project funded by the Administration for Community Living’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research – implements the principles of positive psychology. It is a long-term,  individualized support program that merges use of cognitive support technology (CST), vocational rehabilitation (VR) practices and mentoring to improve career readiness and employment outcomes for civilian and veteran undergraduate students with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) enrolled in 2- and 4-year colleges/universities.

Project Career is a multisite program based out of Kent State University, West Virginia University, and Boston University. The purpose of the program is to identify promising practices that address the cognitive and vocational needs of undergraduate students with TBI to improve long-term employment outcomes (i.e., job placement and retention).

Since 2013, Project Career has recruited 131 undergraduate students to date – 96 civilians and 35 veterans – ranging from 18 to 52 years of age. Students can enroll at any point during their undergraduate education. Referrals to Project Career come from college/university offices such as disability services for students, career services, and veteran support services; the US Department of Veterans Affairs; state VR agencies; acute and post-acute health care facilities; and disability advocacy organizations. Students may also self-refer to the project. All students must be able to provide medical documentation of ongoing impairments due to a TBI.

Once enrolled, students work closely with a Technology and Employment Coordinator (TEC) at their respective college site. The TECs conduct a baseline assessment (e.g., confidence about choosing a career, ability to secure information related to career choice) and a comprehensive CST assessment (Scherer, 2005b). The assessments ensure that each student has an individualized service plan and TECs provide all students with an iPad – a handheld tablet computer – as their CST device. A major component of the CST assessment is the completion of several measures in the Matching Person and Technology portfolio designed to identify incentives and barriers to iPad use (Scherer, 2005b). iPad applications (apps) provide individualized cognitive supports/accommodations in the areas of memory, attention, and organizational skills (Scherer, 2012).


Project Career makes use of CST, in the form of iPads, case management and mentoring to deliver PPI services. Preliminary findings indicate that Project Career students have increased satisfaction with their academic experience, decreased negative affect and resistance to change, and improved feelings of positive support.

Outside of the classroom, Project Career students also use their iPads to enhance physical and psychological well-being by gathering information, including:
• Medical and mental health treatment options
• Accommodation strategies
• Housing and transportation resources
• Exercise and wellness programs
• Nutrition
• TBI support groups
• Veteran support groups

Project Career services enable students to realize their Best Possible Selves – self-images grounded in optimism for future success rather than in past or present perceived disability-related limitations (King, 2001).

The iPads support Project Career students’ social wellbeing by facilitating communication through:
• Text messaging
• E-mail
• Social media
Project Career expands students’ social networks through:
• Mentorships
• Encouragement/connection with professional organizations/conferences
• Work experiences/internships

Interaction with co-workers, customers, and employers are essential for developing students’ interpersonal skills and helping them understand the culture of work in their chosen field (Chapin, 2012). Interacting with influential career role models provides participating students with Intensely Positive Experiences (Chapin, 2012). Successful interactions with individuals in academic, professional, and Project Career (i.e., with a TEC) settings provide positive experiences and help build the student’s confidence, raising his or her expectations for positive experiences in other academic and/or employment activities and social situations.

Project Career uses an intensive case management model and career preparatory services (e.g., mentoring program, self-advocacy training and post-graduation follow-up services) combined with the CST training to significantly enhance students’ prospects for career success after college graduation. Students are encouraged to identify their ideal or “dream” jobs, and mentors provide real-world perspectives on the demands and requirements of students’ desired occupations. Preliminary data indicates that Project Career students experience:
• Improved career decision-making self-efficacy
• Decreased concerns about barriers to career progress
• Increased acceptance of the long-term effects of TBI

This five-year initiative has demonstrated that it builds important personal, social, academic, and vocational capacities for participating students by using CSTs. The mentoring that provides important introductions to professional role models who help students realize their Best Possible Selves and make the college years an Intensely Positive Experience.•


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