Rebounding from Head Injury, U.Va. Athlete Trades Soccer for Engineering

May 13, 2011 — Jay Tison was a member of the University of Virginia's highly successful men's soccer team during his first two years at the University. After a series of concussions suffered in practice permanently sidelined him from his chance to play as a goalie, Tison pursued success of another kind: A degree in civil engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Tison, who played high school soccer for Athens Academy in Athens, Ga., will graduate May 22 after squeezing the four-year engineering program into just three years.

None of his two years of credits from the College of Arts & Sciences transferred to the Engineering School, yet he managed to exceed his target GPA. He won a Rodman Scholars Undergraduate Research Grant, which enabled him to work with Andres Clarens, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, to develop gas-expanded lubricants for use  in power turbines. Tison is using his award funding to aid in the design and construction of a test rig in the lab.

Tison's road to success has not been easy. Once approved to transfer into the Engineering School, he faced battles on two fronts: memory loss from the concussions and an identity crisis because he had to give up soccer. In both cases, his experience and skill as a goalkeeper served him well.

"A great goalie has to be ready for anything," said third-year engineering student Devon Caldwell, Tison's best friend and Sigma Chi fraternity brother. "He has to be able to react quickly in high-pressure situations without second-guessing himself." Tison's ability to do just that helped him tremendously as he transitioned from the College to the Engineering School, Caldwell said.

"Losing soccer was tough for me," Tison said. "Soccer was my 'rock' at U.Va. It validated me, made me stand out from the crowd." When he could no longer play, Tison, 23 had to redefine who he was – and who he wanted to be.

With the same quiet confidence and swift reflexes that made him a top-notch goalie, Tison made a "spontaneous" decision to become an engineer. "I'd always had an engineering mind and loved building things, so the Engineering School felt like a good fit."

Once Tison made the decision, he never looked back, despite the obstacles that lay ahead.

He suffered from post-concussion syndrome, which caused short-term memory loss and anxiety. And he was an upper-level student in lower-level engineering classes, facing a more demanding curriculum than he was accustomed to. "I had to learn how to be an engineering student," he said.

That first year was difficult, plagued as he was with text anxiety and gaps in memory. Happily for Tison, Mary Beck was with him all the way.

As professor of applied mathematics and director of student affairs for the Engineering School, Beck works with students one-on-one and in small groups. She teaches students how to apply calculus to real-world problems and solve differential equations, among many other concepts. She serves as a tutor, but is regarded by many of her students as an important mentor and friend.
"It was particularly tricky for Jay in my class because it had been so long since he'd taken any math," Beck said. "There were times when he would ask me to 'teach' him something I had already taught him. I think he truly forgot many of the conversations we had in those first months."

But Tison never lost his winning attitude. He made some bold moves, Beck said, to streamline his life and to grow in important ways. "He became much more a leader than a follower," she said.

Tison credits the many people who have helped him along the way. "I've developed many mentors among the faculty that I can talk to about anything and truly look up to. The non-technical advice I've received from professors is the true gem from the Engineering School. It's more important than anything you could learn in a textbook."

Now fully recovered from his head injuries, Tison believes that the tools he has acquired at U.Va. will help him take on any challenges the future might hold. "Sure, I acquired the normal skills that all engineers have," he said. "But U.Va. educates engineers in a very well-rounded, big-picture way that makes me believe I can go after any career."

So what career would Tison like to "go after"?

"I'm usually pretty private about my goals," he said. But he's sure he won't "settle" for just anything. 

"I've learned never to be intimidated by a problem," he said. "The Engineering School has taught me that there's always more than one way to reach a solution."

— By Liz Jones

Media Contact

Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS