The next time a student claims he or she will never use the math they’re struggling with in school, have them talk to Western Carolina University alumnus Thomas Farrell, a laser process engineer who works on commercial aircraft engines at GE Aviation Asheville.
“Statistics is huge, especially for manufacturing because you’re trying to prove your capable and actually making good hardware,” said Farrell, who graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a mechanical emphasis. “I think sometimes, especially with the deeper math stuff, people get overwhelmed and say, ‘Am I ever actually going to use this?’ To be able to provide them with real-world examples helps.”
If anyone could have been overwhelmed while in school, it was Farrell who needed 10 years to complete his degree – starting at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and finishing at WCU – primarily because he was working fulltime and the classes he needed often did not fit into his work schedule.
But he didn’t get overwhelmed. He persevered and strategized. “I wanted to find someplace that would supplement paying for school, because I didn’t want to take out massive loans just because the way the atmosphere is right now. You’re not guaranteed to get a job with a college degree and I knew that. And I knew that if I did get the degree, I would have a lot of competition. I wanted to have an edge on the competition and that’s why I really wanted to work fulltime while going to school,” he said.
Farrell started working at GE in 2016 as a technician and after two years he entered the company’s two-year program that trains process engineers. “That’s how I was able to get an engineering job before getting my degree,” he said.
As a laser process engineer, Farrell makes engines for the Boeing 737 Max and 777X. “My specific field is laser machining. You use a focused beam of light to remove material from an object. We’re dealing with a laser CNC machine that drills holes into composite nozzles that which go in an aircraft engine.”
He said he loves his job and the field he is in, but it took some maneuvering and lots of highway miles to make it happen. After enrolling at WCU in 2014, Farrell took night classes at WCU’s Biltmore Park instructional site in Asheville for two years while working the first shift at BorgWarner. He began a new job – second shift – at GE in 2016, and for the next year commuted from his home in Brevard to Cullowhee for school, then back to Asheville for work. Some of those classes started at 8 a.m., a quick eight hours after his shift ended at midnight. To ease their commute to Cullowhee – his wife, Hannah, is a WCU student – the couple bought a house in Clyde, about halfway between Cullowhee and Asheville.
There were a few “hiccups” along the way, Farrell said, primarily class availability, especially in the summer. One of the difficulties was aligning his work schedule with class schedules each semester, which took some time and adjustments to figure out. At one point, he considered commuting to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because the class he needed was a prerequisite, but his work schedule eventually shifted, making it possible to take the class at WCU.
“I credit my adviser who was really understanding and helpful through that entire process. He’d say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to graduate on time, but I understand you’re working, so ….’ He was really looking out for me in that way.”
Despite the lengthy process, Farrell remained motivated. “I had invested so many years and I definitely wanted to go ahead and finish it up,” he said. “Another motivation was that where I work offers benefits to pay for education, so that definitely was a big factor. And, it’s just something I’m really passionate about, in particular getting into material sciences. I have been in school for a while, but if I ever decide to go back for a graduate degree, it would probably be in material sciences.”
For now, Farrell is enjoying his job and appreciating the hard work he put in to get where he is, and he wants to help others do the same. “I’m definitely proud of just being able to get through while working fulltime. I’ve met a lot of Western graduates at work and shared my experiences with my classmates. I like being able to be a mentor to other people, for sure.”
Cullowhee - Main Campus, Asheville
Undergraduate, Bachelor of Science
Full-Time or Part-Time
Electrical, Manufacturing or Mechanical
Total Credit Hours: 126