Student Stories: Kathleen Hankes

Kathleen Hankes

Major: Human Services

Kathleen Hankes believes she has lived two lives in one lifetime.

The first saw her as a single mother, battling addiction and trying to discover who she really was. The second found her at College of DuPage, pursuing a degree and using her lived experiences to help others.

“Being at COD in the Human Services program has helped me learn my own worth,” she said. “It has given me a platform to know who I am.”

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. Subsequent relationships resulted in two additional children—one who was put up for adoption and a second who passed away. She also went to prison numerous times.

“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.”  

She did attempt to return to school to study welding. Unfortunately, she struggled with her English class, unable to grasp the rules and revise her work properly, so she dropped out.

Finally, 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. With the encouragement of Serenity House, which had secured a grant to partner with ROSC, Hankes decided to become a recovery coach. She also visited hospitals, police departments and other entities and encouraged 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.

I now know I’m where I’m supposed to be, thanks to the networking, hope and connections that all happened at COD.

Kathleen Hankes

“After seeing COD, hearing Jason talk about the program and learning how involved he was throughout the DuPage area, I wanted to go back to school,” she said. “I was evolving from a person in recovery to learning how to help others. I was scared, but I needed to take the responsibility to make it happen for myself.”

Hankes filled out an admissions application but worried about paying for college. Thankfully, she received funding through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which helped students during the pandemic, and this paid for her first two semesters.

Initially, her goal was to obtain the CADC (Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor) credential. Then she enrolled in Interpersonal Dynamics, and it changed her outlook.

“The course blew me out of the water,” she said. “I had restrictions in my own mind on what I could and could not do. The skills I was learning in Human Services helped elevate my self-confidence and made me realize I could do this.”

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.

“With my knowledge, background and the skills set I was learning, I was proving to myself that I could overcome any barrier in my way that would prevent me from completing my state credentials,” she said. “Through the great professors in the Human Services program—Jason, Andrea Polites and Julie Trytek, as well as program advisor Kelly Lidinsky—and the networking opportunities to meet and grow with fellow classmates, I was enjoying all of my experiences at COD.”

To help pay for the rest of her classes, Hankes received multiple scholarships through the COD Foundation. This allowed her to focus on her education and work as a recovery coach with Serenity House, 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).

In graduating with honors and earning her Associate in Applied Science, Hankes was named one of the College’s two outstanding graduates. She is transferring to Aurora University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.

While she has lived enough for two lifetimes, Hankes wants to share her experience and knowledge while helping others. She 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.

“I didn’t used to dream, but now I’m dreaming big and moving forward. Through a life’s journey full of adversity, strength and impact, I have emerged with a renewed purpose to hold hands with those still struggling, support those who need support, and assist with necessary changes in systems where the changes will benefit many.”

Learn more about the Human Services program at College of DuPage