What does an engineering student from India and an undergraduate from Long Beach have in common? A winning formula to break down barriers.
You don’t need to go around the world to meet people from different countries— just step onto the Long Beach State’s rugby field. There you will find players who come from a variety of countries, some located thousands of miles from California.
“We get off the bus at games and we stand out from the other teams,” said Coach Jason Reynolds. “We have people from everywhere. It’s what makes us different.”
As different as the languages the players speak. The roster is made up with players from Samoa, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Armenia, Japan, Cambodia, Argentina, Tonga and the United States.
Reynolds, who played rugby at Long Beach State, along with other alumni coaches, strives to carry on a tradition of inclusiveness in a gritty sport that historically has lacked diversity. Reynolds said he hopes to accomplish more with his students than winning hard-fought games.
“The culture of the team is inclusiveness, and that’s reflected in each player,” he said. “When you bring a group of people together from different backgrounds, it can sometimes cause issues. But racism has never been an issue with this group of athletes.”
He said he’s heard at least five different languages spoken on the field this year, but the team only communicates in English.
Isaiah Lutali, 19, said communication on the team was rough in the early days of a new season, but gets easier as the months go by.
“On my first day I immediately noticed different people, nobody looked the same,” Lutali said.
Abdulahad Khanoffi, 23, moved to California from Bangalore, India in 2016 to enroll in the master’s program in aerospace engineering. He’s played baseball, soccer and cricket in India but never rugby before arriving at Long Beach State.
“We work on a team with so many cultures from around the world, and you get to learn about all of them when you’re here. It’s very exciting to be a part of,” Khanoffi said. “The team’s diversity also creates a strong social environment.”
Khanoffi was fluent in English before arriving but said it’s spoken much faster in India, which created a language barrier for him when he arrived at Long Beach State. He said his teammates helped him understand the way English is commonly used in the U.S.
The Learning Assistance Center, located in the Horn Center, also has been a great resource in helping the international rugby players acclimate to the academic rigors of college and overcome language barriers. The center offers assistance through tutoring sessions and language labs.
“We want our players to be successful in school,” Reynolds said. “If that means setting up programs to keep them on track then so be it.”
Lutali considers himself less than a stellar student. In fact, he didn’t even want to enroll in his college courses, but wanted to play rugby. That’s why he couldn’t turn down Reynolds’s offer: do well in school and you can join the rugby team.
But first Reynolds needed help. So, he reached out to USA Rugby to partner the university with Long Beach City College to create a program with the ultimate goal of motivating students to stay in school by letting them play on the club team.
Lutali said being part of the team is what motivates him to get good grades at Long Beach City College; he eventually wants to transfer to Long Beach State. Although he joined just to play, it turned into so much more for him. He said joining is the best decision he’s made during his college career.
Now a scrumhalf on the team for more than a year, he said playing is what motivates him to continue thriving in his classes. He said joining is one of the best decisions he has made for his college career.
“Being different, I was a little afraid at first to be a part of it,” Lutali said, “but it really helped me step out of my comfort zone. It feels like there’s no barriers.”