Darshan Shah: Creating Inclusivity with Football 101 for International Students

“One thing that I did before [Football 101] started was talk to as many people as I could who came from other countries to work and live in Silicon Valley. I asked them, ‘If they had a program like this when you were in school, would that have helped you?’ and I got an overwhelming ‘Yes’ …And when I asked why, they said, ‘Many co-workers love to chat about football in the office, and it would be so much easier to fit in by being part of that conversation.’” – Darshan Shah, creator of Football 101 for International Students
Students pose for a group photo during the now-annual Football 101 for International Students event.

Express yourself fully. Make a difference. Be a leader.

These are three of the main tenets of the Self-Expression and Leadership Program. Many participants have no idea what projects they’re going to do when they sign up for the program. Even so, these individuals are generating ideas for connection and inclusivity that are changing the world. Don’t believe us? Just ask Landmark graduate Darshan Shah, creator of Football 101 for International Students, an over decade-long university program that introduces college football and university traditions to international students to make it easier for them to assimilate into campus life, and later, in the workplace.

How did this idea begin?

Currently living on the West Coast, Darshan is a first generation American (parents from India) who went to college at Colorado State University, continued on through graduate school, and ultimately moved to San Jose, California. Through it all, he has loved college football and connecting with fellow alumni from his alma mater. When Darshan took the Self-Expression and Leadership Program in 2008, he didn’t know what he was going to create. But then he thought about a conversation he had back in grad school that stuck with him ever since:

International students attend their Football 101 game in a group with volunteers who help explain the rules and traditions of American college football.

“I’m going to take you back to 1994, when I was in graduate school at Colorado State University…The school’s football team was having a breakthrough year where it had entered into the national rankings and was gaining national prominence, creating a lot of hype on campus. As a college football fan, I was enjoying the atmosphere thoroughly. One day in an engineering lab, a classmate from Saudi Arabia came up to me and asked, ‘Darshan, what’s a football game like?’ As the conversation progressed, it was very apparent that he was picking up on all of the excitement that was happening on campus, but there was some intimidation for him about going to a game, a sentiment of, ‘How will I fit in?’ And that memory of his discomfort bothered me, to be honest.

“…Fast forward 10 years, in my career in Silicon Valley, and I was meeting a lot of alumni that were from other countries; people who were students in my time or prior and are now working in the world…So I started getting into conversations with alumni– ‘You know, I was just kind of curious, when you were on campus, did you ever go to football games?’ And everybody pretty much said no. And it got me thinking, for something that’s so big, that 30 to 40,000 people go to, it’s amazing that most international students had never been to something so tied to the spirit, culture, and traditions of the University. Even if they have gone once, most have not been taught how the game works or about the tremendous traditions that take place on a football Saturday.”

And when Darshan re-examined that ‘bothered’ feeling through the lens of the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, he began to see possibility: “It’s my university, which I love; it’s college football and traditions, which I love; and it’s international, which I love. And it’s also a way to create a higher inclusiveness, which I deeply care about. And so I felt like this was a perfect opportunity.”

What is Football 101
Students attending the classroom portion of Football 101.

Football 101 for International Students is a football- and tradition-focused program, a partnership between CSU’s Alumni Association, Office of International Programs, and Athletic Departments. At the start of the fall semester, the school’s international students are sent invitations to register for ‘Football 101’ a one-day event in the fall. Football 101 begins with a Saturday morning class explaining the basic tenets of American football as both a game and a college experience (traditions), including a traditional tailgate party, and then continues in the afternoon, when the entire group goes to the football stadium together. Students are partnered with volunteers who teach the fight song and answer questions about the rules of the game as the entire group take their seats together to enjoy the spectacle that is American college football.

Why it matters
Before attending a game, students first learn the rules of American college football.

When Darshan’s graduate school classmate voiced hesitation over going to a game, he wasn’t alone: “I had an intuitive sense about the trepidation about going to a football game since my parents are immigrants from India and never seemed at ease about the idea when I was growing up. What my parents were missing was a friend or colleague to invite them to a game – that right there would have made a difference.”

One thing he did before beginning the program, Darshan says, “was talk to as many people as I could who came from other countries to work and live in Silicon Valley. I asked them, ‘If they had a program like this when you were in school, would that have helped you?’ and I got an overwhelming ‘Yes’ to that question, often with the comment, ‘I wish they had a program like that when I was in college.’ And when I asked why, they said, ‘Many co-workers love to chat about football in the office, and it would be so much easier to fit in by being part of that conversation.’”

It can be difficult coming from another country to easily assimilate, whether it be campus life or work life later on, for those who stay in the United States. Football 101 addresses this by removing the intimidation that an international student might feel about going to a game, and more importantly, giving these international students access to a realm of conversation they might otherwise miss.

From possibility to reality
Kaizer (left) and Darshan sporting their Football 101 shirts during the now-annual event.

Just prior to entering into the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, Darshan was selected to serve on CSU’s Alumni Board of Directors. That’s when the project really began to take root. He began by enrolling other board members in the idea, to the point that a new committee was created, the International Alumni Engagement Committee (IAEC), which three other board members also joined. Next came conversations with university staff.

“The three things from my SELP classes that were being used in an active way and that changed my leadership style are enrollment and registration, a whole new way to drive project management, and to give up the project to somebody else. That last part might have been the most important thing.”

While Darshan was in the midst of enrolling various university constituents in his project, he met Kaizer Cooper, a CSU international alumnus living in Denver, and things really took off. “I brought up this idea, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ and he was enthusiastically onboard.’”

Kaizer was highly motivated to help this program get launched and became the project manager for Football 101, and his contributions immediately made a difference:

“What’s beautiful about bringing a former international student in is that they can start to explain logistical things that we had never thought of. For example, I had a car during college, so I didn’t even think about what most international students go through on campus with no car–at the time, our stadium was 3 miles off campus, so transportation had to be addressed. We were able to arrange buses for the international students as a result [of knowing that].”

And as more constituents’ departments were enrolled and registered, more ideas came to the table, until they had an official event that surprised everyone with its success.

“The first year, our results were really strong… It ended up that we got around 25% of the incoming international students to attend! Another surprise is that we had more women than men, especially from China and Japan. That was something that surprised a lot of people. I think a lot of people were thinking that only the guys would be interested. Totally wrong. And we saw a broad representation across the international countries.”

Broadening the scope
Some of the women of Football 101.

Because Darshan was taking every piece of coaching he received in the Self-Expression and Leadership Program and running with it, he made sure the media was involved the first year. And then the next. And the next. “The first year, the program was highlighted on the front page of the Coloradoan newspaper, and then on Colorado’s NPR. Then it got into a major national publication for education, and a few years later, it ends up winning a prestigious honor called the CASE Gold Award [the Gold Circle of Excellence Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education], which all of the universities are a part of. That was a really proud moment for everyone who brought Football 101 to fruition!”

Even better, Darshan says the program is now rippling out farther still: “Other universities have taken notice and are offering similar programs to their international students. When we started, we tried to look for other schools to emulate, and we couldn’t find any other such program. Now the opposite is true. People are calling CSU about this.”

Tulsi Adhikari (left) from the original Football 101 class presenting with Kaizer and Darshan in 2018 at the 10th year of the event.
What does the world look like through the lens of Football 101?
Football 101 student Hussain modeling American college football gear.

“What I hope will happen with this is that, as time goes on, I hope this idea will grow on a national scale that really starts to address how we can effectively create stronger inclusivity at our universities with the global student population. While we’ve been doing Football 101, our school’s international student population shot up from 1% to 10%, and that kind of growth is a national trend. My university’s campus feels so much more global than 15 years ago. And there are all these intangible benefits when we provide engaging avenues to assimilate.”

It is clear that having people feel included is a big part of Darshan’s world. And as the past decade of Football 101 demonstrates, something as simple and as monumental as understanding the rules of a game and an introduction to its traditions can make all the difference to feeling like you belong. Per Darshan, “The other Landmark term that I love is background of relatedness. Football 101 gives international students and alumni a background of relatedness on campus and in the workplace on a social basis. And for me, it is very cool that people from various parts of the world are more easily able to relate to each other and to enjoy each other’s company that much more.”

Want to know more about Football 101? You can find the program online.

Do you have a great Self-Expression and Leadership project you’d like to share with Landmark Forum News? We’d love to hear it! See our FAQs: Submitting Landmark Projects and Transformational Story Ideas to Landmark Forum News to find out how.

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