Rugby league great Johnathan Thurston AM is well known for his sporting achievements but yesterday he was honoured by the University of Southern Queensland for his tireless dedication to a broad range of community programs and his work with Indigenous youth.
He returned to Toowoomba, a place where many of his sporting dreams began, to be awarded one of the University’s highest honours – Fellow of the University – recognising his service and commitment to development and education for First Nations People.
University of Southern Queensland Vice-Chancellor Professor Geraldine Mackenzie said Mr Thurston was a champion for First Nations communities and an inspiration to many around the country.
“Johnathan is a role model for so many, especially First Nations youth, who through his academy he encourages to finish high school and pursue further education or find meaningful employment,” Professor Mackenzie said.
“He has had a positive influence far beyond the football field and making a real difference.”
The award was presented to Mr Thurston by the University of Southern Queensland Chancellor John Dornbusch at a graduation ceremony at the Empire Theatre yesterday.
Mr Thurston said he was humbled by the honour made extra special at a town so close to his heart.
“Toowoomba had a big impact on me, and it was here where I felt my life turned around,” Mr Thurston said.
“I started to get a bit emotional when the Vice-Chancellor was reading some of the things I have achieved as I have never really reflected on what I have done in footy and out of footy. I could start to feel the emotions get the better of me.
“To be here today is a huge honour, and I know my family is extremely proud.”
Following retirement, Mr Thurston founded and launched the Johnathan Thurston Academy, which provides a forum to encourage First Nations youth to access the educational and vocational resources needed to secure meaningful employment.
Mr Thurston is also a supporter of NRL Cowboys House, which provides mentoring and accommodation for students from remote Queensland communities and an ambassador for Deadly Kindies, a kindergarten program that supports and strengthens children’s First Nations identity and boosts the number of Indigenous children receiving early childhood education.
In 2017, he was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Medal for his work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and in 2019, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to rugby league, and as a role model, something he said is where his passions lie.
“Being Aboriginal lies at the very core of who I am as a person,” Mr Thurston said.
“Using my platform through rugby league, I’ve been able to help create social change for our people.
“That’s what I am passionate about, creating opportunities for the next generation of our culture.”
Mr Thurston also joined the University of Southern Queensland’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (First Nations Education and Research), Professor Tony Dreise and community members for a Q&A at the Toowoomba campus following the ceremony.