Student Stories: Makkara Phann

Makkara Phann

Major: Teacher Preparation

Makkara 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, coming through a refugee camp just as her aunt, grandmother and father had.

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 but could not fully enjoy the moment because, due to COVID, the ceremony was small with limited guests and other restrictions.  

When Phann decided to enroll at College of DuPage, 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. “Throughout the enrollment process, I learned a lot because I did most of it on my own—applying for admission, filling out the financial aid application, registering for classes and signing up for the payment plan. It could be very stressful and frustrating, and I felt helpless in a way, but I did it.”

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

The teachers have passion, and their passion creates passion in others. This is why I want to become a teacher.

Makkara Phann

“The changes were never-ending and the struggle never left. I felt like I was in a different world again,” she said. “I threw myself into my studies. I spent countless hours in the library, poring over textbooks and taking copious notes. I attended every lecture and discussion session, even if I didn’t fully understand everything that was being said. It was tough and frustrating but something I could not run away from.

“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.”

In addition to attending school full time, Phann worked 20 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters and 40 hours a week during the summer. However, she found time to join clubs and volunteer with Feed My Starving Children. She also became a mentor to others like herself who were starting their college journeys but needed help navigating the process. This included students in the English Language Acquisition and High School Equivalency programs.

“To me, the process is easy now, but to someone else, the help means a lot,” she said. “Since I’ve been on the receiving end, I know how it feels when someone takes the time and shows they care.”

As for her academics, Phann did all that she could to succeed, from going to the Learning Commons to meeting one-on-one with professors.

“I have met so many incredible people at COD who are very understanding and helpful,” she said. “When I was still struggling with the language barrier and asked the faculty for help, they always tried to accommodate me. The teachers have passion, and their passion creates passion in others. This is why I want to become a teacher.”

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Unlike in high school, Phann finally had the opportunity to attend commencement when she earned her Associate in Arts degree with honors. She also was named one of the two outstanding graduates and spoke to her fellow graduates.

“My friends said I had to submit the application for outstanding graduate, and my family always says that if something doesn’t hurt you, then do it because you have nothing to lose,” she said. “I’ve tried so many things and failed, but I never gave up. What I didn’t realize was how high I could reach.”

Phann is transferring to North Central College and pursuing education and mathematics with a minor in ELL. Her goal is to teach secondary education but not in a local classroom setting for a traditional school district. She instead would like to join 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.

“People overlook COD and don’t realize you get the same quality as a four-year school,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you grow up. It depends on the people you surround yourself with. At COD, I met so many people from different places and made so many friends, and the professors showed me what was possible.”

Learn more about the Teacher Preparation program at College of DuPage