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Adapting to Life After SCI: Preparing for the Future through Education

On July 4, 2009, a diving accident changed the life of Gianfranco Gervasio, a native of Bergen County. At the time of his spinal cord injury (SCI), he was 27, and had a job in banking. During his stay at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, Gianfranco spent time rethinking his future, including his prospects for employment. Although his employer was willing to place him in another position, Gianfranco wasn’t ready to return to work so soon after his injury. “I had a lot to deal with,” he said, “and I wasn’t enthusiastic about the work I had been doing. Realizing that finding and keeping a good job would be more difficult because of my disability, I decided that it was essential to pursue a bachelor’s degree.” 

Rehabilitation was fundamental to his preparation for life as a college student. Gradually, he adapted to life after SCI, and began regaining his independence. He made major progress as a result of Kessler’s Driver Rehabilitation Program, and now drives an adapted van. “Driving again — that was huge, for me,” he said emphatically. Because of his plans to return to work, the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services provided some financial support, including paying for the van’s hand controls and helping with tuition and books. 

His next step toward a degree was to finish the coursework he started years earlier at Bergen Community College. Then, Gianfranco looked at local four-year colleges, and started thinking about a major. “I was on the fence about finance,” he recalled, “and I saw the opportunity to try something new.”  

Still uncertain, Gianfranco chose to major in social work at Ramapo College. “Social work appealed to me and offered a variety of career avenues and job options. As I began taking courses, I felt even more positive,” he remarked. “I would be equipped to help others, and give back to the community. I felt confident that I was heading in the right direction.”  

Ramapo College provided a counselor and accommodations, including a special desk, extra testing time and note taking, and worked with him to minimize the distance he needed to travel on campus. His counselor happened to have had a similar injury, and was extremely helpful with disability concerns, as well as with academic issues. “With each semester, things got easier,” he noted. “I figured out how to use a regular desk and how to take my own notes.” To complete his requirements, he interned at Valley Hospital, at a homeless shelter, and with a middle and high school child study team. 

After graduating in 2016, his professors encouraged him to apply for Ramapo’s new one-year accelerated master’s degree program in social work.  In 2017, Gianfranco earned his MSW and passed the licensing examination of the New Jersey Board of Social Work Examiners. He now works on a new federally funded project, “Reinventing Yourself after SCI.“ “With my credentials and personal experience, I was the perfect fit.”

The research team is testing a new six week intervention aimed at helping individuals develop the confidence and skills necessary to fully participate in the community. Study participants who are assigned to the “Reinventing Yourself after SCI” program attend weekly two-hour group sessions in person or review materials independently online. To prepare for his role as one of the group facilitators, Gianfranco trained at the project’s lead site, Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. He learned to use the project’s workbook to guide participants toward learning self-efficacy and emphasizing positivity in their daily lives. 

Gianfranco is impressed with the curriculum, and feels he can effectively convey the program’s message. “When faced with challenging circumstances, reframing that experience can work,” he attests, “and cognitive-behavioral therapy can help effect that change. Being in a chair is a huge advantage for me. I can relate to people with disabilities and I understand their issues.”

As someone who has reinvented himself after SCI, Gianfranco is a model for what can be achieved by reframing that experience. “Focusing on education set me on a path to self-discovery,” he said. “I ended up really liking social work.  Education gave me not only a new career, but a way to help others in need and to give back to the community that has supported me.” 

To learn more about Reinventing Yourself after SCI, contact Rachel Byrne at Kessler Foundation at
For more information on Kessler’s Driver Rehabilitation Program, contact Rich Nead at 973-731-3900 2322.