Great Valley graduate overcomes traumatic brain injury to earn MBA

Jason Herman and his parents with the Nittany Lion at Great Valley's commencement ceremony

Jason Herman, center, earned his MBA from Penn State Great Valley less than four years after a near-death experience in which he sustained a severe traumatic brain injury.

Credit: Jason Herman

MALVERN, Pa. — Aug. 29, 2019, changed everything for Jason Herman, a 2023 Penn State Great Valley graduate. He had been accepted to Saint Joseph’s University’s Executive MBA program and received a promotion to global project manager at JP Morgan. He was working from home that day but drove to the office to attend a party being held for him.

Herman was on his motorcycle, going the speed limit and wearing proper protective gear. Then, a car pulled out in front of him, and they collided.

Among a litany of other injuries, Herman’s chest was crushed and he sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), the most serious of the three types of TBIs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Traumatic brain injuries are essentially brain dysfunction that occurs following a trauma,” said Haejoe Park, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Penn State College of Medicine. “They could be short episodes or be chronic conditions with long-term consequences that include a risk of late-onset neurodegeneration. Patients with severe TBIs may have long-lasting neurologic deficits such as persistent vegetative or comatose states.”

The severe TBI certainly changed Herman’s life, but he defied the generally poor prognosis. Although he cannot remember the month he spent in the intensive care unit at Christiana Hospital, he did regain consciousness and has fleeting memories of the following two months in the brain trauma unit at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. He was released after that and spent six months in a wheelchair, followed by three months using a walker.

According to Park, short-term memory issues, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating are some of the common side effects for severe TBI survivors. Herman grappled with those issues, among others, describing the first year as a blur, permeated by something akin to feeling intoxicated. It was hard to focus, his eyes always felt heavy, his body was stiff, and it became difficult to control his emotions as his capacity for memories increased.

At that point, pursuing an MBA was obviously not an option — but Herman wasn’t ruling it out completely.

Herman grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a huge Penn State fan and dreamed of being a Nittany Lion. After high school, he instead enlisted in the United States Air Force and spent 20 years serving active duty.

His TBI had him “resorting to childhood,” in a way, he said. After about a year of recovering, Herman decided he was ready to earn his MBA, but Saint Joseph’s didn’t feel like the correct fit anymore. Instead, Herman decided to enroll in Penn State Great Valley’s MBA program to realize that childhood dream.

“The MBA program helped me relearn how to live, be social, and think again,” Herman said. “Sounds easy just to say that, but to live it is another story all together. I always considered myself emotionally intelligent and a strategic thinker, but my TBI changed that. Those things were not easy or obvious anymore. I had to relearn how to live and think. The MBA, and my professors and classmates, helped me achieve that.”

The social aspect of interacting with professors and classmates was difficult at times, particularly early on. Herman credited adjunct faculty member Rick Wall with being especially helpful in aiding him with adjusting to the program and to life after sustaining a TBI.

Herman took two of Wall’s courses in his first year in the MBA program, BADM 828 Negotiations and MBADM 815 Ethical and Responsible Leadership. Wall recalls Herman wanting to speak after class — being held via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic — one day to share that he was recovering from brain trauma. This struck a chord with Wall, a former volunteer for the Brain Injury Association of New York State who has a family history with TBIs.

The two discussed TBIs and recovery extensively, with Wall offering advice on how to manage the social and emotional hurdles Herman faced, as well as how to relate to and work with his new classmates.

“It’s hard to describe how grateful he was without ever being overbearing,” Wall said. “He seemed to so much appreciate that I simply was listening to his story. I think that was a source of motivation for him to keep fighting and get better. I’ve seen his evolution and journey to recovery from a terribly misunderstood, terribly painful, difficult injury. It’s been an honor and a privilege to help.”

Herman was able to adapt in other areas, too, like taking copious notes in class to supplement his shortened focus and attention span.

The injury and initial challenges didn’t hold Herman back, and he graduated this past May with a 3.6 GPA.

“I could not have been prouder,” Herman said. “Yes, for attending and graduating from my childhood dream school. I think most can connect with me on that. But overcoming a serious TBI to adjust, and even excel academically despite my setbacks, gave me reason to celebrate.”

Herman said he feels like he’s “almost” healed. That’s not to say life is like it was before the accident. The path to physical and mental recovery has been difficult and frustrating at times. He started writing daily during his recovery, reflecting on the myriad ways his TBI impacted and changed him.

Most importantly, Herman is happy now, which wasn’t always the case throughout his recovery, he said. So now, bolstered by enthusiasm and a new degree, Herman wants to help others. He plans to write a book about his experience to shed light on TBIs for survivors, family, friends, co-workers and the general public.

The desire to help others also takes the form of smaller initiatives closer to home. A few weeks after commencement, Herman stopped by Penn State Great Valley with his cap and gown. The ceremony was over, he didn’t need it anymore, and he wanted to donate it back to the campus so a future graduate could get their regalia free of charge.

“I grew up in a good household,” Herman said. “All my needs were met, and I have no complaints. Still, we were a lower middle-income family and I had two younger sisters. As such, I started working, legally, on my 15th birthday and have worked ever since. Not everyone is as blessed as me, and when you go to school while working and supporting your family, money can be tight. Yeah, the regalia is ‘only’ about $100, but that can mean the difference between feeding your family well or not for some.”