Kathleen Hankes and Makkara Phann Named COD’s 2023 Outstanding Graduates

By: Brian Kleemann

Outstanding graduate finalists

Kathleen Hankes of Wheaton and Makkara Phann of Winfield are the 2023 Outstanding Graduates at College of DuPage.

Both plan on careers that will help others. After earning her Associate in Applied Science degree in Addictions Counseling, Hankes is transferring to Aurora University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. Phann is graduating with an Associate in Arts degree and will attend North Central College, where she will pursue education and mathematics with a minor in ELL (English Language Learner).

Meet the Outstanding Graduate Finalists

The Outstanding Graduate finalists are Jeffrey Evans (Wheaton), Sunil Joshua (Naperville), Sofie Langan (Naperville), Sophia Ricciardi (Westmont), Naila Sabahat (Villa Park) and Musab Shaikh (Carol Stream).

Instead of going to college after high school, Hankes moved to Arizona, married and had a daughter. After the marriage ended in divorce, she returned to the area and was living with her parents.

“I am very grateful for the upbringing I had and the stability my hard-working parents always provided,” she said. “But I did not want to stay with my parents forever. I wanted to be a mom to my daughter and be on our own.”

Moving to a neighborhood that she could afford, Hankes worked three jobs to provide for herself and her daughter. But the street life and gangs that surrounded her led to an addiction to crack cocaine. For nearly three decades, she found herself in a never-ending battle to reclaim her life.

“I always spun back into myself. The cycle was that I would almost complete something but then fail. It was self-defeating,” she said. “At the same time, I often found myself helping others. I would think about going back to school and possibly becoming a nurse, as one of my grandmothers was a naval nurse. But I was convinced I had missed my opportunity.”  

While going through and maintaining recovery at Serenity House, an alcohol and drug substance abuse treatment center, she learned about DuPage ROSC (Recovery Oriented System of Care), a new program looking for persons with lived experience with substance abuse to help others. Hankes decided to become a recovery coach and visited hospitals, police departments and other entities to encourage them to become stakeholders in ROSC.

One visit brought her and a co-worker to COD, where she met Human Services Program Chair Jason Florin. Hankes began taking advantage of opportunities that came her way. For example, the College’s new Recovery Support Specialist certificate, supported by an Illinois Department of Human Services grant, trains students who have personal experience with addition or mental health recovery to become Certified Recovery Support Specialists (CRSS). She became one of the first students to enroll in the program.

Receiving multiple scholarships through the COD Foundation helped Hankes financially so she could focus on her education and work as a recovery coach with Serenity House, DuPage ROSC and the Kane County Drug Court. She is also a student intern with Leyden Family and Mental Health and a speaker through the Center for Effective Public Policy, working on change elements for social justice. Recently she served as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court Pretrial Implementation Task Force for the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA).

Hankes is thankful that COD provided a path away from her own internal stigmatization.

“The professors are great at making students collaborate, and the barriers just washed away,” she said. “I now know I’m where I’m supposed to be, thanks to the networking, hope and connections that all happened at COD.

Phann was just 1 year old when her father moved from Cambodia to the U.S., making the difficult decision to leave his family behind in order to help them.

The separation was not easy, as Phann, her sister and mother stayed in their small village isolated near the mountains and waited. Finally, after nearly 13 years, the three made the journey and Phann was reunited with her father.

After moving in with her aunt’s family, Phann began a different journey when she and her sister became English Language Learner (ELL) students at Wheaton North High School.  

“The language barrier was horrible. It was as if my freedom had been taken away,” she said. “It was challenging since I knew nothing about the culture, language and people. I was with students who grew up with video games, YouTube and baseball, while I grew up on a farm and went fishing. The hardest part was fitting in and discovering who I was, and I felt separate from them.

“However, in a world of dreams, hard steps are unavoidable. You need to fight because you have nothing to lose.”

During her junior year, Phann challenged herself to take regular classes and then advanced classes. She graduated as an honor student and an Outstanding English Learner. When she decided to enroll at COD, her parents fully supported her as did her sister, who worked to help pay for Phann’s tuition and fees.

“Although both of my parents grew up without education, they believe in the value of learning and how it can help the family,” she said.

Walking on campus for the first time, Phann felt a combination of excitement, nervousness and trepidation, which is how she felt when moving to the U.S. However, this time was different.

“I threw myself into my studies,” she said. “I attended every lecture and discussion session, even if I didn’t fully understand everything that was being said. As the semester continued, I began to feel more and more confident in my English skills. I started participating in more class group work, made friends with classmates and became more involved. The real breakthrough came when I received my grades at the end of the semester and I received straight A’s. It was a turning point for me. It showed me anything is possible with hard work, patience and determination.”

Her goal is to teach secondary education for a nonprofit organization and travel abroad—including to her home country of Cambodia—to provide youth with access to a quality education.

As for COD, Phann urges prospective students to enroll.

“I have met so many incredible people at COD who are very understanding and helpful,” she said. “The teachers have passion, and their passion create passion in others. This is why I want to become a teacher.”

College of DuPage will hold its 56th annual Commencement ceremony on Friday, May 19, at 7 p.m. It will be available to view on the College’s Facebook page and web site.

Learn More About Commencement