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Back to books: Taking a new career path at age 54

WEST DUNDEE – It was a trying, up-and-down series of events that led 54-year-old Paul Bryant back to the classroom.

Bryant was laid off from a 17-year corporate retail position in 2003, started an online business along the same lines soon after, experienced its nearly immediate success and then watched that success grind to a screeching halt when the recession hit in 2008.

His brother, a physical therapist assistant, first suggested Bryant try a completely new career path. He said he could see Bryant's personality fitting in well in physical therapy, a more recession-proof field than retail.

In the spring of 2009, hearing reports of a recession that could last up to 10 years, Bryant enrolled in prerequisite courses at Elgin Community College. He was accepted into the physical therapist assistant program later that year.

"It was a tough decision. I love the retail business and I've done very well with it," Bryant said. "It was tough to go into something that was entirely new. You're always anxious when you do something like this."

Bryant graduated with high honors this month, and now is studying three to four hours a day for his PTA exam, which he'll take in July.

A long-time employee of the Sears corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Bryant started an Internet-based buying and selling business shortly after he was laid off in 2003. He makes strategic purchases and places items on Amazon and eBay.

His wife, Linda, retired in 2005 and started helping out with the business.

"We did exceptionally well until the recession of 2008," Bryant said. "After two years of seeing huge decreases in sales, I decided in the spring of 2009 that I better look for something else that's a little more solid."

Linda also went back to school, and is on pace to graduate in 2013 with a degree in health and wellness management.

"Basically, you just have to continue to grow," Bryant said. "This was an opportunity to grow and an opportunity that I've found to be just absolutely, incredibly rewarding."

Upon passing his exam, Bryant hopes to land a job with a long-term acute care hospital or a rehabilitation center associated with a retirement community.

He's managed to keep his online business going through his studies, and doesn't have any plans to stop that once he lands a PTA position.

He said he's had success within the PTA tract by separating his study time from the rest of his life.

"Going back, you always have to wonder are you going to be able to do this after not being in school for 25 years," said Bryant, who earned his MBA from Florida State University in the mid-1980s. "All it takes is you have to dedicate yourself to basically spending time with the books. You have to separate your private life from your study life."

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