Another step in the long journey of Round Lake Beach resident Mario Sankis is about to end with a college degree and recognition as a top student by a group that enabled his real-life experiences to count as credit.
The bachelor's degree in general studies from Eastern Illinois University caps nine years of study and serves as the foundation for the next chapter as Sankis prepares to pursue a law degree at Northern Illinois University. But it is how the 35-year-old retired Marine -- who served on a U.S. presidential detail, was a commended police officer and is a cancer survivor -- has made it this far that caught the attention of the American Council on Education in naming him Student of the Year for 2015.
"Mario has selflessly served his country and his community, and his perseverance in the face of personal hardship exemplifies the qualities we seek in ACE's Student of the Year," said Deborah Seymour, chief academic innovation officer.
The organization represents more than 1,600 college and university presidents and related associations. It evaluates workplace education and training programs or military courses and occupations, and recommends credit when the learning is considered college-level.
Sankis was in the Marines from 1999 to 2003 and served as a military police officer assigned to the HMX-1 Presidential Helicopter Squadron for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
"For a kid from Round Lake Beach to have the opportunity I had with the Marines and the presidential unit helped me with my life," he said.
He became a police officer in Washington, D.C., after the military but became homesick and left after a few years. Back in Illinois, Sankis said he wanted to be a state trooper but applied when a spot opened in his hometown and joined the Round Lake Beach force in 2006.
"Mario was a very good employee" and represented the village on a multijurisdictional task force, Chief David Hare said. His most significant moment, Hare said, was Oct. 6, 2013, when Sankis revived a pedestrian who had been hit by a car and was not breathing. He received the department's Life Saving Award.
By that time, Sankis already had survived a baseball-sized tumor in his stomach and was about to face a neurological condition not related to his service that would cause him to retire in 2014 after eight years on the force. He walks with a cane and is in constant pain, but he has persevered.
"It's difficult, but what am I going to do?" the upbeat Sankis said.
Sankis began studying at College of Lake County in 2007 and transferred to EIU on the recommendation of Kirk Flipowski, one of his instructors and a former deputy police chief in Glenview. He took classes through the University Center of Lake County and online, and is in his final class at Harper College Professional Center in Schaumburg.
"I hope some kid in Round Lake Beach will read this and say, 'He can do it, so can I,'" Sankis said.
The Student of the Year Award comes with a $500 scholarship and will be presented March 14 at the ACE's annual meeting in San Francisco.