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College Success After Traumatic Brain Injury

Service members participate in college graduation ceremony
Image courtesy U.S. Army

As a service member or veteran, you have all the advantages of your military training and experience to help you succeed in college. You’ve learned the importance of discipline, dependability teamwork and how to show respect. You know how to set goals and raise the bar for everyone around you. These skills will serve you well.

Nevertheless, entering or returning to school after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) may feel challenging. You may find yourself coping with persistent symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, pain, vision and hearing problems, dizziness, and mood changes. You may also feel overwhelmed or have difficulty staying focused.

Strong support systems at colleges and universities can help you through these challenges. However, it’s important to be your own advocate and educate yourself about what resources are available.

“Many resources exist that can help you during your college experience,” said Scott Livingston, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) Education Division director. “Following a TBI, be open to using those services and tools, even if you think you will only need them for a short period of time.”

Disability Support

Most schools have an office that provides assistance to students with disabilities and other learning challenges. It is often called disability support services (DSS) but may have a different name, such as learning resource center, academic support services or student access center.

Whatever name DSS goes by, your school is required by law to provide reasonable accommodations for physical or psychological conditions that affect your academic performance, even if you only need them for a few weeks or months until you’ve fully recovered from your TBI.

DSS counselors will assess your unique situation and work with you to create an accommodations plan to address your needs. Accommodations can include extra time to finish tests, different test formats, priority seating in class, authorization to have another student take notes for you, and approval to wear a visor or tinted glasses in class, among other options.

And you don’t have to tell your professors about your TBI if you don’t want to. Your DSS counselor will tell your professors that you have a disability and explain your accommodation needs but will not say what type of disability. If you want to, you can talk with your professors about your accommodations. The more people you have on your support team the better, and your professors can be great members of that team.

Assistive Technology

Among the many accommodations DSS counselors can help you identify is assistive technology. Assistive technology includes products that help people who have difficulty speaking, writing, remembering, seeing, hearing, learning and walking. Some apps on your smartphone — for example, apps that provide appointment reminders — are considered assistive technology and can help anyone.

Assistive technology is especially helpful for people who have difficulty with focus, concentration, memory or organization. Assistive technology can help students with mental tasks, and health care providers and DSS counselors often recommend it for those who have sustained a TBI.

Head of the Class

Many students who’ve had a TBI worry about whether they are ready to go back to school and how, or if, they will succeed. The bottom line: not only can you to go to school, but you can do very well.

For tips, tools and more information about resources that can help you accomplish your academic goals, check out the DVBIC “Guide to Academic Success After Traumatic Brain Injury.”

Comments (6)

  • Last Spring I had to withdraw from two online courses due to persistent symptoms such as headaches, dizziness pain, and vision issues. Also, I could not stay focused on the my studies.
    Just started back to school yesterday. After reading your article title "College Success After Traumatic Brain Injury" I will take advantage of the universities resources that are available to me as a veteran.
    I have not been diagnosed with TBI but I surly have the systems from service connected back and neck injuries. Thank you.

    • Karen, we are sorry to hear about your difficulty last semester, but are so happy to hear that this article was helpful! Best of luck in your classes. If you need more resources, feel free to call the DCoE Outreach Center at 866-966-1020. Trained consultants are available 24/7 to help answer any specific questions and direct you to resources in your area. Also, if you haven't already, please consider downloading the "Back to School Guide to Academic Success After Traumatic Brain Injury" booklet from:

  • I sustained a severe TBI in a MVA in 1990. I was airlifted to Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy (VCU) where I was in ICU ina comatose state for approximately 40 days. Once my Subdural hematoma was stabilized, I was transferred to McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, VA. The is where I can recall my first memory; sometime during the second week of September 1990. I have no memory of the accident, the airlift to the hospital, or the time I spent in ICU at VCU (July 22, 1990-Sept. 14, 1990). I spent 3.5 months in inpatient rehabilitation at the McGuire VA Medical Center and then was transferred to a transitional living center for another 3 months. I was medically discharged from the Air Force on March 29, 1991.

    After becoming a service-connected veteran, I was eligible for VA's Vocational Rehabilitation program in 1993. I decided to pursue a Master of Science in Physical Therapy (PT) degree and initially began taking prerequisit classes at VCU I needed in order to apply for a PT program. I initially started taking one class for two semesters, then for semesters 3-6, I took two classes during a single semester. After not scoring well and a few exams, I realized after comparing my notes with a classmate that I was missing a good portion of the lecture notes. My neuropsychological evaluations suggested I had a slow rate of processing inofrmation, a weak aauditory recall memory and increased attention deficits. I sought out Disability Services at VCU and showed them my neuropsych results and was provided the ability to tape record my lectures and to take my exams in isolation with additional time limits.

    I attend VCU from June 1993 to July 1996 where I had achieved 78 prerequisit credits with a 3.56 GPA and able to apply to a PT program. I applied to four universities, VCU's Medical College of Virginia, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Duquense University and Thomas Jefferson University (TJU). I was turned down by three of the schools and put on the wait list for TJU. In July 1996, I received a call that TJU had a spot for me in the PT program.

    I attend TJU from Auguest 1996 to Sept. 1999 and graduated with a Master in Science in PT with a 3.53.GPA. I have enough information I can tell you but it will be a lot of information. It may be better if you contacted me and I will be more than happpy to explain to you more about my successes in school/universities. I received a second masters degree, an MBA in August 2007. I am Board Certified as a Physical Therapist in Virginia and I am Board Certified in Health Care Manaagement as a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.

    Please contact me to learn more. John W. Sharpe, FACHE, MSPT, MBA

    • John, your story inspires us and is sure to inspire others! Thank you for sharing. We are happy to hear about your success.

  • One thing I would like to share with others is what I believe was a big help for when attending college classes. After I realized I missing a good portion of my notes, I began tape recording all my lectures. In the evenings, I would play back the lecture recordings and then fill in what I missed in my notes. I would then re-write my notes to be cleaner and more easy to read. When I went through this process of listening to the lectures again, writing down what I missed and then rewriting my notes again, I realized that I was involving more of my senses: I was hearing the lectures again, I was seeing what I was writing down and I was able to paint a picture of what I was seeing.

    Since I had a slow rate of processing information and poor auditory memory, my visual memory was much better than my auditory memory. Hence, when I heard the lecture again, and was able to see what I was writing down, I could visually remember this information. I do not know if there is any research that supports this, or not, but I know it worked for me. The only difficult part is one must be willing and motivated to spend a lot of additional time to go through this process. I was 36 when I began Physical Therapy school and I was motivated to invest the additional time.

    • Thanks, John, for sharing your experiences with us. We are excited to announce that your new TBI Champion video is now on our YouTube channel!

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This page was last updated on: September 14, 2017.