Alicia Azzopardi was laid off just before Christmas. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
"I was so upset when I left my job," said Azzopardi. "I was crying, and I just didn’t know what to do."
The same week that she got laid off, Michigan State University accepted her into its accelerated nursing program. Even better, she learned she qualified for a grant from the Michigan Nursing Corps. The state-funded initiative, which provides her with a $25,000 stipend, is addressing Michigan’s nursing shortage in part by rewarding workers who have been laid off.
"My tuition is pretty much 100 percent paid for, and I don’t take that lightly," said Azzopardi, 28, who has a background in business and sales.
While trying to survive in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, Azzopardi and others are taking advantage of their job losses by pursuing careers they’ve always wanted.
Michigan’s 14.1 percent unemployment in May towers above the national average of 9.5 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics for June.
"It’s a really hard thing to change careers when you didn’t want to," said Martha Mangelsdorf, author of "Strategies for Successful Career Change." But starting over at an older age carries less of a stigma than it once did.
"It’s not like the 1950s where people started with one company and stayed there for the rest of their working career," Mangelsdorf said.
The oldest intern
For Trent Vondrasek, 42, chasing the dream translated to becoming the oldest intern at the Lansing, Michigan, mayor’s office, after he lost his job in October as a consultant for General Motors .
But the father of three had found himself hobbled by a major career decision in his 20s that continues to plague him. He quit college to take a sales job for an auto supplier.
"One of the mitigating factors [potential employers] are looking for is, do you have a college degree? And I don’t have one. Even though I’ve got 18 years’ experience, I’m not even considered," said Vondrasek.
Now, Vondrasek is trying to break into politics, but has found that he has to make his way up the ladder. As an unpaid intern, his peers were about half his age. He also was older than some of his superiors.
"I learned a lot from them, and I think they learned some things from me also," Vondrasek said of the other interns. "Because of my sales experience, I’m used to dealing with people."
Vondrasek highlighted one episode of his new career that he said brought him exceptional job satisfaction. He helped protect a woman from losing her electricity and from a mortgage company that was threatening to foreclose on her home.
The woman had complained that agencies would not return her calls. Vondrasek used his influence and links to the mayor’s office to talk with the agencies.
Vondrasek also studies political science at Lansing Community College. He’s paying tuition out of his own pocket, which is a challenge as his family tightens its belt.
"I fully realize that by going into public service, I’m not going to be financially as sound as I was in the automotive industry, because I got paid extremely well for what I did," he said. "But if I can get more self-satisfaction out of it and be prouder of what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, then for me, that’s a win."
Still, Vondrasek said, he probably would not have taken this route if he had not been laid off.
Volunteering and pursuing avenues where you excel, like Vondrasek did, can help career-changers make the best of the situation, said Mary Beth Sammons, author of "Second Acts that Change Lives: Making a Difference in the World."
"This is an opportunity to look where your heart is and to follow your passions," she said.
Sammons has her own story to tell. Based in Chicago, Illinois, with a journalism background, she began writing her book last fall after losing her job as vice president of a Web site for people facing health crises.
"I had already done the second act, taking my journalism skills and putting them in a place I thought was meaningful — helping people that were sick and dying," said Sammons, 52. "I suddenly realized I had to create another act for myself."
Her next personal chapter became writing about people who reinvented themselves.
How to manage a successful career change
For those looking for a change in direction, here are several resources that might ease the transition:
Federalstudentaid.ed.gov: Does your career change require you to go back to school? This government Web site will help you explore your financial aid options.
Safeborrowing.com: This Web site from the American Bar Association will help you decipher how student loans work.
CareerOneStop.com: Sponsored by the Department of Labor, this Web site will direct you to local One-Stop Career Centers. The centers offer job postings, training and information on the government funds available for you.
Not all jobs require complete re-education, Mangelsdorf said. Talk to people already in the industry, hook up with a professional association and find out how others navigated their way through, she advised.
Still, ongoing education can give you an edge by showing potential employers that you have a "zeal for knowledge" and the most current information out there, said Eric Winegardner, vice president of client adoption at Monster.com.
Transitions don’t have to start from scratch. If you’re still employed, you can also switch careers within your company, Winegardner said. "They already know your work product, they trust you, you’ve got strong relationships there. Start talking to them about your career path and your development," he said.
A change in direction can take a toll on relationships. If you have a partner or spouse, discuss logistics and time management with him or her before diving in head-first, Mangelsdorf said.
If you go back to school, get your feet wet first. It can be challenging to get back in the swing of higher education if you haven’t been a student in a while, Mangelsdorf said. (CNN)