PENDLETON --- Matt Varney had been out of high school for 10 years when he decided to take another crack at college.  At age 28, he was married and the father of a three-year-old son. He was also more mature and goal oriented than the 18-year-old who attended the University of Kentucky for a semester before leaving with no credential and a decade of debt.

"I wanted to be here this time," Varney says of enrolling in Tri-County Technical College's General Engineering Technology program.  "It made all the difference.  I see my degree as a tool, not a piece of paper."

Back in 2004, when he graduated from high school, no one in Varney's close-knit family had ever thought about attending college. They were all coal miners.  "But my dad saw potential in me and wanted me to earn a degree. Back then it was about what I felt I should do.  My dad wanted me to go to college so it was about the degree, the accomplishment, not about preparing for a career," he said.

So when Varney landed at the University of Kentucky as one of 11,000 freshmen, he got lost.  He didn't feel a connection to the professors, his classmates or the college. 

Growing up in rural Kentucky, he was not prepared for large classes and the culture shock of his new environment so he sat out for a semester and then enrolled in Alice Lloyd College, switching his major to elementary education.  After two semesters, he got married and dropped out to work full time to support himself and his wife, a student in religion and political science at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Varney began to take on a variety of minimum-wage, entry-level jobs.  He was a customer service representative, a car salesman and loaded trucks for a logistics supply chain company.  "All starting-point jobs.  They didn't fulfill me.  Putting stickers on boxes every day did not challenge me," he said.  

But it did motivate him.  "It showed me that it was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." 

Another motivator to make a career move was his son and the example he wanted to set for him.   Varney sought a new challenge.

The family got one when his wife, after earning a master's degree from Asbury Theological Seminary, received a job offer to be director of Christian education at Pickens Presbyterian Church.  The family moved to South Carolina.  He began working at Cornell Dubilier as a fork lift truck driver.  Six months later he was offered a job as process technician, which he has done for the past five years. 

"There was no room for advancement unless I go back to school," he said.  "I needed a college degree."  With 55 credits from Alice Lloyd and Kentucky, he enrolled at Tri-County in the spring of 2015.  He moved to second shift to accommodate classes that began to challenge him and renew his interest in college.

"The GET program allows me to do machine design and be part of a project from the ground up.  I enjoy PLC programming, robots and process control engineering.  I like finding solutions to problems," he said.   Not a fan of sitting in a lecture class with 100 seats, he prefers the hands-on approach in GET classes.  "I like to learn by doing.  The GET projects are a new challenge at the end of every day," he said. 

"The degree is the avenue to a career and I realized it's important and that's why I have to stick with it this time," he said.

A supportive family and employer make it possible, he said.  This time around, his education is debt free, thanks to lottery and a need-based grant. "I'm still paying on those loans from the one semester at Kentucky and one year at Alice Lloyd. This time there are no student loans. Tri-County is the affordable way to get an education," he said.

"My advice to young people is even if you want to go to a four-year college, start off at Tri-County for the first year with affordable tuition with university transfer courses.  The amount you can save is huge.  At Tri-County, you have the opportunity to work closely with instructors.  At the University of Kentucky, I didn't have that kind of connection with professors or with the students.  Attending Tri-County is the best decision I've made with my career and livelihood," said Varney who was named GET Outstanding Student for the GET program at the College's Student Awards Ceremony held April 14.

Last semester GET students participated in New Prospect Elementary School's STEM Day by conducting workshops and presenting demonstrations of STEM projects designed to stimulate students' interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Varney demonstrated his class project to third, fourth and fifth graders.

It reminded him of why he loved working with kids and chose elementary education as a major all those years ago. "I love seeing the kids' excitement over my robot project and the questions they asked excited me.  I want them to find a program like GET coming out of high school and not spend 10 years figuring it out on their own like I did."

"Matt is a model student," said Dorian McIntire, coordinator for the General Engineering Technology program.  "He was recently selected as the GET student of the year for a variety of reasons. He is a tireless self-learner who often helps students in the classroom who need a little more attention. He loves to tackle big projects and quickly solves technical problems on his own. He does all of this while working and supporting a family. If all my students were like Matt, the potential for learning in the classroom would reach new heights."