Brain injuries & higher education a focus of student research

Two Elon University student workers in the Office of the Registrar have studied military veterans and students with traumatic brain injuries who enroll in college in need of particular advising resources.

Nearly a quarter of all injuries suffered by American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are brain related, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and as both conflicts have wound down in recent years, many of those survivors have returned home to earn college degrees.

The needs of veterans, however, differ greatly from traditional college students who pursue higher education straight from high school. Advocates and researchers suggest that many veterans bring to campus invisible wounds that few academic advisers are equipped to handle.

Meanwhile, new attention is being paid to traditional college-bound students with traumatic brain injuries. Not unlike the posttraumatic stress disorder and other head ailments common among veterans, these injuries – whether suffered in teenage car wrecks, on high school athletics fields or on the battlefield – also require special attention from academic advisers.

Longtime student workers in Elon University’s Office of the Registrar took note of both trends in higher education.

Erin Walker ’14 and Ashley Edwards ’15 have worked over the past year with Registrar Rodney Parks to research both populations, and the trio is now sharing their findings in book chapters and professional conferences across the United States.

“The research we have done tends to focus on unique student populations and the challenges they face pursuing their degrees,” said Parks, a U.S. Navy veteran who joined the Elon University administration in early 2013. “As institutions focus more resources on students who reverse transfer to other institutions, understanding the challenges students face and working to identify barriers are keys to student success.”

Walker, a psychology major from Cary, North Carolina, researched ways for college administrators to better help veterans with traumatic brain injuries or mental health conditions. Her work, co-authored with Parks, was published in “Helping Veterans Succeed: A Handbook for Higher Education Administrators,” a project by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. 

Elon had 69 students receiving veteran’s benefits in the previous fiscal year totaling more than $1 million in funding, and Parks said the university anticipates a 30 percent increase in those numbers in 2014.  Nationally, he added, veterans have a higher-than-average college dropout rate, so understanding their barriers and providing the right resources is key to improving national rates.

And posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as other mental health conditions or brain injuries, commonly interfere further with veterans’ return to civilian life and their functioning in higher education institutions.

“People with PTSD have problems with coping and with resiliency. Maybe they self medicate with alcohol and drugs to build up a resiliency to a traumatic event,” Walker said. “That can be a problem in classroom because they might be put in an anxious environment where there’s a trigger.”

A number of studies that Walker read had found veterans with PTSD might benefit form veteran peer support groups. “I am very interested in working with veterans in the future,” she said.

Edwards is researching students with traumatic brain injuries and how they are assisted by the disabilities services at their respective schools.

Brain injuries can lead to multiple learning difficulties, including attention deficit disorder and diminished cognitive functioning. One of Edwards’ participants needed to relearn reading and writing after their injury. Since all of her study volunteers were injured in high school, she wanted to know how those injuries affected their approach to higher education and – once in college – how disability services helped or hindered them.

“Students with traumatic brain injuries don’t consider themselves to have a disability,” said Edwards, a psychology major with minors in neuroscience and biology. “They ‘hit their heads.’ They don’t feel like they have something holding them back. It’s an unfortunate truth that when you say ‘disability services,’ there’s a stigma attached to that. As a result, most students with TBIs don’t access accommodations that can help them succeed. This is something we’re trying to overcome.”

Edwards has found that students with traumatic brain injuries don’t actively seek help, and university offices that handle disability services don’t always market themselves. Previous research showed that academic advising and disability services staff members could sometimes fail to recognize the disabilities that traumatic brain injuries present, or were unable to offer sufficient services to students with those particular disabilities.

And some students worry that visiting disability services will make people believe they aren’t able to do anything for themselves. All are obstacles that Edwards said need to be addressed.

For Parks, watching his student workers grow as scholars has been a rewarding professional experience. He said that both scholars, are making contributions that will help future college students make better use of campus resources.

Likewise, he said, colleges will be better prepared to help students with certain backgrounds.

“While many registrars have advanced degrees and know student data well, it is rare that they work with students to contribute to higher education literature.  Both Ashley and Erin have worked in the office for a couple of years so they were both familiar with the unique challenges students face,” Parks said. “Both were excited about the prospect of conducting research and publishing, which made my job mentoring them through the process easy.  The key is finding an area that they are passionate about and relates to higher education. 

For more information on Undergraduate Research at Elon University visit:

– Story by Erin Turner ’15 and Eric Townsend in the Office of University Communications