Setting Students up for Success
Shepherd Center’s SUCCESS program pairs college students who have recently sustained concussions with students who have successfully recovered in a peer mentoring research project.
Peer mentorship takes place between a person who has lived through a specific experience and a person who is new to that experience. In rehabilitation, studies have shown that it is an effective tool to help people cope with challenges, access resources and learn to manage their condition.
“Shepherd has peer support built into our DNA,” explains Pete Anziano, peer support manager at Shepherd Center. “You can think about it like this: As we go through life, we turn to our peer community groups to see how their experiences have gone to help inform how we should act. Then one day, imagine you sustain a brain or spinal cord injury. Where can we turn in that moment? We need organized peer groups like what we provide at Shepherd to represent what a successful future after injury looks like. That’s the spirit and philosophy of peer support.”
Shepherd Center has two established peer support programs: one for people who have sustained spinal cord injuries and the other for families and loved ones of people who have sustained brain injuries. Research has proven the efficacy of these types of programs, and more work is in process. One of the latest efforts is being led by Tracey Wallace, MS, CCC-SLP, a clinician researcher at Shepherd Center, who is looking into how peer mentorship can benefit college students who have recently sustained concussions.
SUCCESS After Concussion
SUCCESS (Success in College after Concussion with Effective Student Supports) is a research and development project aimed at developing a peer mentorship program for college students recovering from concussion that supports short- and long-term goals for academic and vocational success. It is funded by Andee’s Army, an Atlanta-based 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to funding the recovery and rehabilitation of children and adolescents who have sustained brain and spinal cord injuries.
Through this three-year study, peer mentors link mentees to resources that support recovery and, just as importantly, build a community of support.
“We completed focus groups with students who had sustained concussions during college to identify themes around their needs,” says Wallace, who is a co-principal investigator of the study along with Katy O’Brien, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of Communication Sciences and Special Education at the University of Georgia. “Some of those themes included limited knowledge about concussion, concern about being able to continue successfully at school and difficulty communicating with professors about their needs. Every one of them said they would have used a peer mentor for reassurance if they had that option at the time.”
Concussions are sudden jolts or blows to the head that can cause mild traumatic brain injury. Typically, they resolve within a few weeks as headaches and other symptoms subside. However, about 20 percent of cases present a more complicated scenario, with concussion complications that fall beyond the scope of primary care physicians. College students who experience this can be left struggling with what to do next.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you’re stressed from school or not getting enough sleep,’ but I knew something was off,” says Jordyn Sak, now 23, who sustained two concussions during her tenure on Georgia Tech’s diving team. “After my second concussion, I had some trouble with visual tracking with my eyes, some vestibular symptoms and headaches that persisted too long. This is when I decided to go to the Complex Concussion Clinic.”
Using the specialized knowledge from Shepherd Center’s Complex Concussion Clinic (CCC), along with input from subject matter experts from medical, educational and community organizations, and people who sustained concussions during college like Jordyn, researchers tailored the SUCCESS program to be as effective as possible.
“The program is conducted virtually through a secure mobile application that has been customized for the SUCCESS program,” Wallace says. “When a student fills out their profile on the app, they indicate what factors are most important to them in terms of being matched with a mentor, whether it be school, major, sports participation, gender, symptoms or other interests.”
Once they are matched, the first four weeks of the mentorship centers around building rapport, establishing a structured meeting schedule and sharing as much information as the mentee needs. After approximately four weeks, mentors and mentees stay in touch through the app and follow up on an as-needed basis.
For Jordyn, deciding to mentor after her experience has been fulfilling.
“It’s been so rewarding to turn a negative of getting two concussions into a positive by mentoring,” Jordyn says. “I know I would have enjoyed having someone to talk to during that time in my life. The two people I have mentored are two more people who can now positively impact others. It’s like a domino effect.”
In addition to helping the mentees, Jordyn shares that the program helped her, too.
“I also gained a lot out of it,” Jordyn says. “I became confident in talking to mentees about my experience. A lot of training we did for SUCCESS is that we’re the listeners. We’re not supposed to be leading conversations, but instead, we ask questions that get mentees to open up. Then we can be there for them and adapt based on what they need. These are great skills to learn for life in general.”
Where does SUCCESS go from here?
Initially, researchers are selecting mentors and mentees from college students who have sought or are seeking care at Shepherd Center’s CCC. Next, researchers will look at factors like mentee grades, class load, participation in the SUCCESS program, quality of life, self-efficacy, mood and stress to measure the program’s impact, constantly gathering feedback from participants on how to improve. Longer term, they hope to bring this kind of peer support program to universities across the country.
“Most universities and cities in America don’t have specialty concussion clinics like the CCC,” Wallace says. “Moreover, students on campus may not even know to seek them. Having peer support programs where students are, at school, would be very beneficial.”
If you are interested in additional information, resources and educational handouts about concussion, college and coping, visit the SUCCESS website here.
By Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.