The economic downturn and subsequent job losses that have totaled in the millions have had a devastating effect on those who have been displaced from their homes or the workplace.

Not everyone reacts the same way when faced with such an unexpected upheaval in their life. There are those who choose to return to the familiar trappings of home to live with parents or siblings, while others push forward and try to secure work of any sort in an effort to make ends meet.

Then there are those for whom the economic crisis has functioned as an unforeseen catalyst to embark on a new career or learn new skills in a time of shifting economic priorities and the reshaping of the global financial landscape.

Tom Hutcheson is one of those students. Downsized from his job as a post-production web developer just before the 2008 November election, Hutcheson says that the nation’s financial slide served as an epiphany to enroll at Santa Monica College (SMC) during the summer and he is now pursuing his dream of becoming a mechanical engineer.

“At first, it really takes a toll on you,” Hutcheson, 30, said in a recent interview regarding being laid off in the midst of financially turbulent times. “But then you get a chance to reflect on what you really want to do with your life.”

For Hutcheson, that is being on the cutting edge of the rapidly growing sustainable products industry and using his skills as an engineer to help develop them.

“I’m really excited about my new career,” said the SMC student. “The same way that information technology has made a huge difference in our (personal and professional) lives, sustainability can have that same effect. And I really want to be a part of that.”

There are a number of students at SMC and other community colleges whose experiences mirror Hutcheson’s, says Randal Lawson, the executive vice president of SMC.

“I’m sure that we have numerous students here who want to move into a new area or retrain for another career,” he said.

Despite the fact that due to the state budget reductions to community colleges and SMC reducing their course offerings by six percent, enrollment numbers are above last year’s, Lawson said.

“We think that is due to the fact that in addition to the students who are returning to school for new careers, there are also a large number of students who are enrolling at SMC because, due to a variety of factors, they could not get into the University of California and California State schools,” SMC’s executive vice president noted.

As a guidance counselor, Esau Tovar often hears firsthand the reasons why students are taking classes not only at SMC, but also at community colleges throughout the state.

“Primarily, there are a lot of new students here that have become unemployed, and now they are returning to school or enrolling for the first time,” Tovar said.

Hutcheson, who says that Tovar was a great help in assisting him in charting his courses, says that he is not alone among students who have returned to the classroom during the recession.

“There are other people who have similar stories to mine,” he said. “I have a few teachers that are taking some classes with me.

“Often, you make choices in your career based on security,” Hutcheson continued. “At first the recession takes its toll on you. But then you really begin to see a silver lining, and for me, that was coming back to school to become an engineer.”

California community colleges have a long history of serving as a starting point for students who cannot afford the tuition at a university, prefer living and studying close to home, or adults who work and are seeking to further their education on their own schedule.

In 1960, under the administration of Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, the California Master Plan for Education was developed and involved the existing UC and Cal State systems, as well as the California Community College system. Community colleges are also often used as a springboard to a four-year college or university.

The underlying principles were the following: that some form of higher education ought to be available to everyone regardless of their economic means; that only a person’s academic proficiency should determine how far they can go; and differentiation of function, so that each of the three systems would strive for excellence in different areas so as to not waste public resources on duplicate efforts.

Under the plan, all community college applicants would be accepted and graduates would be able to transfer to the Cal State or UC systems.

“To the extent that we can, we are trying to remain a valuable resource to students who are seeking a better education,” Lawson said. “For many, we are often the only remaining option.”

Jade Smith, the assistant dean of student affairs at Loyola Marymount University, says that although the university does not typically have students returning to school who are driven by economic factors, LMU’s seniors will face the same shrinking job market as the rest of the population.

“Seniors who are coming out of school have anxiety about the state of the economy,” Smith told The Argonaut. “They and their families are not divorced from what’s happening with the economy.”

LMU’s student population is capped at a certain number, so unlike other universities and colleges, its enrollment numbers would not show a spike in increased enrollment during the economic crisis.

Cameron Hinton, the president of the Associate Students at SMC, says that he has met a number of students like Hutcheson.

“Many of them are looking to beef up their resumes or looking to change careers,” said Hinton, who is a political science major.

Hutcheson plans to attend Cal State Northridge next year, and says that he is looking forward to his future as an engineer.

“I would never have considered coming back to school until I got downsized,” the future engineer stated. “Not that I wasn’t happy before in my other career, but now I feel like I have a new lease on life.”