Parkland grad traveled circuitous route
CHAMPAIGN — Jack Norcross was taken the minute he read the opening sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
For the first two decades of his life, he probably could count on his two hands (twice) the number of books he had read. But after seeing that sentence — "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." — he was hooked.
"I could have spent 20 hours a week committed to the text" — reading it, re-reading it, analyzing it, writing about it, he said.
Prior to starting his academic career at Parkland, Norcross admits, he wasn't too thrilled about being at the college — "I don't think I really appreciated the opportunity," he said. But then came Humanities 146 with Amber Landis and his introduction to non-western literature, particularly Latin American literature.
"I was like, 'Man, there really is a merit, a gain to literature.' I was really excited," he said.
This evening, Norcross, 25, will receive an associate's degree in literature from Parkland College. He hopes to transfer to the University of Illinois to study world literature and gender and women's studies.
A member of the community college's honor society, Phi Theta Kappa, and nominee for USA Today's All-USA Community College Academic Team, Norcross will deliver a speech at the honors convocation today. He also is co-commencement speaker this evening with Amber Simmons.
It will be his first graduation since finishing eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School. Born and raised in Champaign, save for a few years in Utah as a child, Norcross left Centennial High School during the spring semester of his senior year (He later obtained his G.E.D.). After a short stint at Southern Illinois University, he returned to Champaign and worked for a few years.
At 21, with "dumb and romantic" visions of traveling after reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," he joined a rideshare and headed to Los Angeles. Thus began his few years of traveling the U.S., mainly spending time in Oakland, Calif.; New Orleans; and New York City, working here and there, playing his guitar in the streets and drinking. For some time, his base was an "anarcho-punk squat house" called Hellarity in Oakland.
In 2012, while on his way from New York to New Orleans, he stopped in Champaign to visit family. He had been noticing funny things with his body. He'd be on a street corner strumming his guitar, and his fingers wouldn't do what he wanted them to do. Sometimes he experienced double vision.
Initially, he attributed it to too much drinking. Following an appointment with his eye doctor and later an MRI, Norcross was diagnosed with RRMS, or relapsing, remitting multiple sclerosis. That was July 27, 2012.
His mother, Julie, who attended Parkland in the 2000s and would go on to receive her teaching certificate, encouraged him to try Parkland. He enrolled that fall and began taking care of his health, and by spring, he started to feel better again. And after taking a break from writing and playing music, he recently picked up his guitar again.
Today, he lives at the St. Jude Catholic Worker House in Champaign and has found its philosophy (run by consensus — there are no bosses in charge) to be a good fit. He also volunteers at the house, which acts as a drop-in for homeless people and offers food and clothing assistance.
To him, being a student is about being critically engaged, offering value to the minority opinion, doing good in the world.
Tonight, his co-speaker's message will be on the power of perseverance.
"Mine is finding beauty where you are, exploring where you, finding excitement where you are," Norcross said.
Parkland College commencement
When: 8 tonight
Where: Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Speaker: Gary Durack