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A Fresh Start: PCC's 35th Commencement Spotlights Student Speaker Jim Parker

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Portland Community College celebrated its 1997 commencement on June 14 and 36-year-old Jim Parker, who had taken many hard-won steps to stand at the podium, represented PCC’s 1,952 graduates.

Jim Parker grew up in Alabama and freely admits that he wasted a lot of time between high school graduation and beginning his education at Portland Community College. Parker, who was chosen to represent his fellow students at this year’s commencement ceremony, was 30 years old before he read his first book.

"I did whatever I could to just get by. I didn’t really care," said Parker of his approach to studying in high school. It didn’t help that as a child he was the victim of a severe bout with pneumonia which left him hearing impaired. The condition progressed and by the time he reached high school he was fitted for his first hearing aid. He now wears aids in both ears.

After high school, several failed attempts at the local college followed. Parker moved to Florida but it didn’t improve his outlook. "I was around a lot of dopers. I did a lot of drugs," he admitted. "I didn’t know what a goal was."

Twelve years of drifting finally got to him. "I knew I wanted to do something. I just didn’t feel good about myself. I wanted more." He started reading.

When a Florida friend decided to head back home to Oregon, Parker came with him, wanting to get a clean break from old habits. It worked. Slowly, surely, Parker has transformed his life, making new connections and reveling in the joy of learning and discovery.

Initially, Parker, who is a Tigard resident, came to PCC in 1993 with the notion of becoming an engineer. But calculus and physics weren’t turning him on. "I’m a very religious person — more so in the last four years. I prayed for guidance," he said.

The answer came, remarkably enough, from a local TV issues program, "Town Hall," in a segment on free speech. "It just took a hold of me," he said of the show in which opposing sides debate a variety of topics. He headed for PCC’s counseling center where his career interest tests kept pointing to law. He decided to give history, poly sci and speech a try. It was a good decision. Parker graduated with a 3.44 GPA, has been active on the PCC debate team, and manages to work full time at a local restaurant.

He says he’ll most likely transfer to Portland State University this fall and major in history with the eventual goal of practicing trial law.

Parker’s academic journey is a testament to his determination. Before PCC, he’d taken college writing four different times and flunked. His first step was to take PCC’s "College Survival and Success" which gave him tips and good advice on succeeding in college. "Career guidance instructor Malka Sekey said to ‘always make the best of your resources that you have.’ It’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever had," Parker said.

He then spent a year taking pre-college classes before moving on to Writing 115 with Dr. Michael McDowell. "When I got my first paper back, he told me I had a lot of work to do," says Parker. "He gave me a long list — sentence structure, organization, adjectives and adverbs, agreement, everything — and told me to go to the tutoring center and get help. I worked hard. My writing progressed and I got an A from the class."

He took on other challenges, signing up for speech communications and eventually joining the debate team.

"I needed to feel comfortable with public speaking if I was going to be an attorney," explained Parker. "My first year was very hard and frustrating. At times I just wanted to quit. My first speech, I started sweating. I said just two words."

His most satisfying coursework has been the political philosophy class he took from instructor Chris Cayton. Parker’s earlier classes prepared him for the research work he would do in Cayton’s philosophy class.

When Parker graduated, his entire family, whom he has not seen since 1991, flew in from Alabama to be with him. And his fellow employees at TGI Friday’s where he works as a waiter were rooting for him.

"He’s been practicing his speech, talking about it to all of us," said corporate trainer Corrine Bush. "He’s come a long way from when he first started here. Everyone should be so lucky to have an employee like him, especially with a disability. It’s a pleasure to see how he’s turned out. People have choices. Jim decided to make the right ones."

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