From athlete to advocate: English Grad gives newcomers a sporting chance

May 15, 2023
See the original article on Berkeley News.

Benjamin Coleman has always loved being on a team.

The UC Berkeley senior, one of more than 10,000 graduating students walking in Saturday’s commencement ceremony, grew up in Calgary, Canada. At age 5, he joined his first hockey team, the Glenlake Hawks. He played with the same teammates until he graduated from high school. Although he played a lot of other sports growing up — badminton, soccer, skiing, swimming — hockey was his favorite.

“It was just a really amazing, close-knit community there that I think played a big part in my love of hockey,” he said. “It’s really special to be bonded with a group of people working together toward a common goal.”

He played goalie, like his dad, who often coached his son’s teams. “When you’re there in the goal, you’re on an island, and it’s up to you,” said Coleman. “It’s an incredible thrill, and it distracts your mind from everything else that’s going on.”

As a kid, he also loved reading. He couldn’t get enough of it. “I’d be getting a haircut, and I’d be reading a book. Or I’d be at the dinner table, and I’d be reading a book.” He blazed through the entire Harry Potter series six or seven times. “I credit my mom and great-grandmother for fostering my love of reading, fostering my love of the arts, of writing.”

four people stand next to eachother

Benjamin and his family, from left: his mom, Rita; his sister, Lucy; Benjamin; and his dad, Murray. (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Coleman)

Coleman’s mom’s family is from India, and his dad is white, and Coleman was often one of the only players from an immigrant family on his sports teams in Calgary. “My immigrant friends and family members, they didn’t always get those experiences.”

So, as a junior in high school, he and his younger sister, Lucy, started FANS (Full Access for Newcomers to Sports) Foundation. It’s a registered nonprofit in Canada and the U.S. that partners with local businesses, professional sports teams, youth teams, summer camps and other groups to provide opportunities for newcomer immigrant youth to get involved in sports. In the past six years, FANS has welcomed more than 500 newcomers from around the world.

In the summer of 2021, FANS hosted a basketball event for a group of kids. Coleman and Lucy rented an outdoor court, invited a coach to lead a practice, and everyone got to take home a new basketball. Recently, FANS, in partnership with a youth camp, helped start a new program for Ukrainians displaced by the war. “These youth might have language barriers or other challenges with adjusting to a new life and culture, but you see it go away with sports. It’s something that’s truly special,” he said.

As a senior in high school, in spring 2019, Coleman traveled to India with his parents and sister for the first time. Over two weeks, they visited eight cities, where he met dozens of his relatives and saw where his grandmother grew up.

“Growing up, I had doubts about my connection to the Indian side of my heritage because I don’t have an Indian name, I don’t necessarily look Indian all the time, and I don’t speak Hindi or another Indian language. I feel very connected now. Everyone was so kind and caring. Some of them were 90 or 100 years old, and unfortunately, some of them have passed away since then. I’m so grateful to have had those experiences.”

During the trip to India, college decisions were coming out. One morning, Coleman woke up at 4 a.m. to check his email and found out that he got into Berkeley. “I was so excited,” he said.

An hour later, he and his family took a boat on the Ganges River to catch the sunrise. On the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by people bathing in the water, they performed a puja, or a prayer. At sunset, they returned to the river, where people were performing traditional rituals with candles, doing their laundry and bathing. There were even cremations happening on the river.

“It was absolutely wild because you go to the Taj Mahal, where you get a tourist experience. But on the same trip, you’re on the Ganges in the middle of everyone living their lives. It was a beautiful, chaotic experience that was so spiritual and surreal.”

At Berkeley, Coleman is a triple major in English, political science and legal studies, with a minor in journalism. Each major, he said, has helped him explore his varying interests and better understand the U.S. and California. An English class called The American Novel introduced him to a canon of great American writers, and last spring, he took a political science class in which he learned about war in the Middle East. “To learn about geopolitical tensions and international relations, and everything that goes on behind that, is incredible,” he said.

When he first got to campus, Coleman felt like he needed help acclimating to his new home and life. So, he enrolled in a DeCal class called Adulting that taught all sorts of skills — with the help of guest experts — including how to do laundry and cook dinner, and how to manage finances and find a work-life balance, a skill that he found especially useful while he pursued three degrees at the top public research university in the world.

“I don’t think I’ve ever pulled an all-nighter in my life,” he said. “I’m always making time to go for walks, watch sports and movies, to do those self-care activities. Maybe it’s less of a hard skill, but it’s as valuable as anything else that can be taught.” He went on to co-facilitate the class for the next three years, an experience he found rewarding.

Coleman was also a reporter for the Daily Cal, Berkeley’s student newspaper. When he joined in his first year on campus, he hadn’t done anything related to journalism before. But it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine his love of sports and writing. He started covering basketball and football, and then, during his junior year, he became the sports editor. Four years later, he has published more than 100 stories, and he picked up a minor in journalism along the way.

“I really got to follow the teams closely and have that connection,” he said. “The ability to trace teams over seasons, and now, over multiple years, and see the players develop, has taught me a lot about sports reporting and how to tell stories.”

Coleman’s parents are both lawyers — his mom practices personal injury law and some immigration law, and his dad is a corporate lawyer helping small businesses get set up — so Coleman has seen the impact that law could have on people’s lives.

For two summers during college, Coleman worked at law firms in Canada, and at Berkeley, he was involved in research at the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law. He was part of working groups that addressed issues like the global MeToo movement, disability rights and diversity in education.

After he graduates, Coleman is going to work for the Minnesota Vikings in the National Football League as a social impact associate, promoting the Vikings’ connection to the community. In his role, he will assist the social impact team in their community relations efforts, including events, youth football, nonprofit partnerships, NFL initiatives and player causes.

“It seems like the perfect building block on my experience at Berkeley and with FANS, and it involves a cause that I care deeply about: using sports to make a difference.”

After he completes the one-year position, he plans on applying to law school. Maybe he’ll pursue sports law or nonprofit law, but he’s not sure yet — he wants to keep his options open.

But what he does know is that whatever he’s doing, he’s always stronger and can accomplish more when he’s part of a team.

“I always try to be in tune to what people bring to the table,” Coleman said. “I’m always there to listen and learn from others. I think all of us work better when everyone gets to speak up, have a voice and share their perspectives.”