Unreserved Student Ambassador Program ‘bridging communities’

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
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Hardin High School students work on projects in Dani Phillips’ English class. Next month Phillips is bringing students from Hardin and Browning to Fergus High School to participate in the Unreserved Student Ambassador Program. 

Photo courtesy of Dani Phillips

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Dani Phillips

Fergus High graduate and first-year Hardin High School English teacher Dani Phillips is putting another team together.

On Wednesday, April 10, the former FHS basketball player will see her Unreserved Student Ambassador Program come to life. 

“This program values experiences, social interaction, expression and goals,” she said. “It also gets students collaborating, not just competing.”

Unreserved will bring students from Fergus High School, Hardin High School and Browning High School together at FHS, separate them into small groups and get them talking about stories and goals. Phillips hopes the project “empowers each individual’s goals and expressions while closing the gap between diverse communities and appreciating the social richness Montana offers.”

Teachers from each school are coming to help facilitate the event, which will take place throughout the day.

FHS Principal Tim Majerus said he looks forward to hosting the program, as he believes in its message.

“Too often we are critical of that which we don’t understand,” he said, “and this program is a way for students to get a better idea of different cultures.”

Phillips said she appreciates the support the program has received from the FHS administration and teachers. 

“They are taking in around 90 students on this day,” said Phillips. “[Majerus] deserves a lot of credit for this. It’s a huge deal to do something like this.”

Phillips looks forward to connecting her Hardin students with some of her mentors, such as Starla Solberg, Lynn Butcher, Karen Durbin, Lee Crouse, Barb Morris, Coach Sherry McQuinn and Sandy Armstad.

“I’m proud of Dani,” said Armstad, “I think it’s so important to try to get people to understand each other’s cultures…it’s more and more important all the time. I’m so glad to see her doing this.”

Fergus High School English teacher Megan Cirrincione has been on board with this project from the beginning.

“We have a lot of diversity in our state but students often don’t have the opportunity to explore it,” said Cirrincione. “This is a good way for students to learn something different about others and appreciate people for who they are.” 

Cirrincione said she hopes the participants involved in Unreserved come out feeling “more valued.”

“That’s one of the big goals,” she said, “and if students can come together, maybe it can spur a positive ripple effect.” 

During the small groups, students will put photos and stories together that tie into four themes: heritage, hurdles, happiness and hope. Student ambassadors also must write a poem or a six-sentence story to support the images they chose. 

“We hope students can be vulnerable but we also want their product to empower them and focus on the positive,” said Phillips. “We want them to be able to express themselves confidently and without reservation.”


The origin of Unreserved

Phillips remembers her first time in Browning as a sophomore at FHS; she remembers feeling like she’d stepped into a different world.

Ten years later, she’d end up student teaching there, an opportunity that changed her life forever

“It was an exceptional experience,” she said. “The community really embraced me.”

And she embraced the community, thanks in part to some faculty members who took her under their wing, such as Brenda Johnston.

“One teacher invited me to the drum circle and taught me how to do some traditional dancing footwork in front of my students,” Phillips said. “I knew I was going to totally fail in that position, but I wanted my students to see me in the role of a student. It was a neat way to get to be more a part of things, and it started special conversations with the students and staff.”

The positive experience in Browning inspired Phillips to apply for a job in Hardin; the job is not easy, but it’s rewarding and inspiring. 

Phillips’ cultural immersion sparked a new mission for the former Director of Operations for Montana State University’s women’s basketball program: to bring students from differing cultures together so they can better understand their differences and find similarities.

“I want to bridge the distance between these communities,” she said.

Unreserved will also feature keynote speakers from around the state, including former Montana Teacher of the Year Kelly Elder, former MSU basketball player Steven Davis and former Olympic pole vaulter Marritt Grace Davis. There is also a surprise keynote speaker.


 ‘All about the students’

Phillips said she’s grateful for the support she’s received for Unreserved, as MSU, the University of Montana, Stockman Bank, First Bank and many other individuals and organizations have donated to the cause. She’s also been fully supported by Make it Happen Montana, which is hosting their Kindness Project on the same day.

“It’s so awesome how that worked out,” said Phillips. “Make it Happen has been so supportive. They even combined the name of our events by calling their project Kindness Unreserved.”

Although this idea came from Phillips, many have helped her along the way. All those who have helped out, she said, are in this for the students “and are integral to Unreserved being impactful.”

 “This is about the students,” she said “One of my favorite parts about this day is that we are creating a school day for students where we all get to learn from them. I hope they enjoy it and I hope they walk away knowing they are valued.”



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