Many adult Americans are finding themselves in a place they never thought they’d be again – back in the classroom.

With more than 15 million people out of work, many are returning to college, some to complete an unfinished bachelor’s degree, others to get a second one in a different field.

That will soon be the case for Vironette Lawrence of Atlanta. Lawrence was laid off last December from her well-paying telecommunications job after her company outsourced her position and those of many of her coworkers to India. “I got laid off in an e-mail,” Lawrence said. She took an extended holiday vacation with her family in North Carolina. But upon returning home to Atlanta, she found unexpected work.

“A lady from a community group with my church called me one day and told me that her mother-in-law’s caregiver had abruptly left and would not be back,” Lawrence said. “And my friend asked me if I would go and stay with her mother-in-law until she could get there.”

Lawrence packed a bag and set out to help her friend and ended up staying on this spur-of-the-moment job around-the-clock for two months. To her surprise, Lawrence found that she really enjoyed the work. “It has just been life-changing. I’d never been around older people other than my grandparents,” she said. “It has just opened my heart to a new community of people, the elderly.”

Lawrence says that after almost a decade in the telecommunications field, her newfound love for the elderly is leading her to a new field. “I’ve applied to school to take the pre-requisites for nursing,” she said. “I believe all things happen for a reason.” Lawrence plans to continue her education and become an RN.

For Chandra Thomas of Decatur, Ga., getting laid off in August 2008 came as a complete surprise. At the time, she was a staff writer for Atlanta Magazine. “In 2007, I was journalist of the year; in 2008, unemployed,” said Thomas.

Thomas decided to use her new freedom from the daily grind to pursue some educational opportunities that she never would have been able to fit into her schedule when she had a job. She applied for and was awarded a fellowship at Ohio State University. The six-month program begins in January.

“Basically, I get to go to graduate school,” Thomas said. “I can take about three classes a quarter for free. I’m trying to pick up some skills that will make me more marketable, and this fellowship is a good opportunity.”

Kimberley Williams, the director of admissions for the University of Michigan’s campus in Flint, says many other people like Thomas who have fallen victim to corporate downsizing are now heading back to class.

“The job market is pretty competitive so just having a bachelor’s degree won’t necessarily guarantee that someone will be the top applicant,” said Williams. “So we are finding that students are coming back for a master’s degree, for something else to give them more credentials as they go out into the job market.”

Sinclair Community College in Ohio is seeing a similar return to the classroom. So the school now has a workforce development center. Natasha Baker, director of public relations for Sinclair, says the center can help open up new worlds to laid-off workers.
“A lot of our displaced workers are going to be able to get into fields that they may have never even considered before like sensor technology and nano technology,” said Baker.

Baker also points out that not all jobs of the future require college degrees. Some, like advanced manufacturing positions, only call for applicants to get proper certification.
“Some of the certificate programs are just six months to a year,” Baker said. “They are able to get through those programs, find jobs and get back to working.”

Getting back to work is the goal of millions of unemployed Americans. Along the way, some have come to view their layoffs in a different light. “I know it may sound crazy,” said Thomas, “but my layoff has been a total blessing.”

Lawrence agrees, saying, “I would never have stepped outside of what I had been doing… but this forced me out of my comfort zone. And that’s been a good thing.”