Alumnus of the Year
For his dedication to promoting equity and access in sport and for his achievements as a Paralympic gold medallist, Ben Newton OAM, Queensland High Performance and Development Coach (wheelchair rugby) at Paralympics Australia and the Queensland Academy of Sports is Southern Cross University’s 2023 Alumnus of the Year.
After being involved in a car accident when he was a toddler, which left him paralysed from the chest down, Ben started playing wheelchair rugby in Coffs Harbour when he was 16. That first contact with peers in a team sport setting changed his life.
“I had never been connected to networks for other disabled people. Those men not only taught me about wheelchair rugby but also about living with disability, navigating the world.”
While competing for NSW, Ben studied a Bachelor of Psychology with Honours at Coffs Harbour campus.
“My time as a student at Southern Cross was fantastic. I thrived in that environment where I could throw myself into a degree that I enjoyed without having to leave those support networks of friends and family that were so important to me.”
“The University was really supportive, flexible and accommodating when I had to travel around for competitions.”
After graduating, Ben moved to Brisbane in 2010 with the goal of being selected in the Australian Steelers team for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. In just two years, he not only made it to London, but his team went undefeated in competition to become Paralympic gold medal lists.
“The Paralympic village was like being on another planet where there's nobody around except disabled people. It was just the complete opposite of what you experience in your day-to-day life, where you're trying to navigate a world that's not designed for you. I felt there that disability was just part of our identity, and everybody celebrated it.”
In 2014, Ben was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his remarkable service to sport.
Looking back and remembering his childhood, Ben believes disabled people are in a better position nowadays, both in terms of acceptance and awareness. However, there is still work to be done.
Those barriers transcend Paralympic sports and, in particular, wheelchair rugby
“When people see wheelchair rugby, they fall in love with it and want to get involved. However, the biggest barrier is people not knowing that it exists. We have the platform of the Paralympic Games every four years, but outside of that, most sports for disabled athletes and para-sports don't attract much attention or financial support.”
Hopefully, the upcoming Brisbane 2032 Paralympic Games will flip that coin.
2023 Alumni Impact Award Recipients
Alumnus of the Year, Ben Newton OAM
After graduating from Southern Cross in 2010 with a Bachelor of Psychological Science with Honours, Ben went on to win a gold medal at the 2012 summer Paralympics and was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal in 2014. Ben now works as the Queensland Paralympics High Performance & Development Coach (Wheelchair Rugby) where nurtures talent and inclusivity within the sport.Learn more about Ben
Young Alumnus of the Year, Miranda Luby (dual recipient)
Nominated as an award-winning author, journalist, and copywriter, Miranda’s work spans renowned publications to inspiring novels, showcasing her passion for mental health and conservation issues. A role model for young adults, she inspires and empowers through her talks and workshops where her dedication to community service and impactful storytelling shines through.Learn more about Miranda
Young Alumnus of the Year, Dr Cooper Schouten (dual recipient)
Cooper has completed three degrees including a PhD at Southern Cross. He is the Director of Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group and oversees several programs promoting education, research and capacity-building within beekeeping industries in Pacific Island partner countries and Australia. He also teaches into the Regenerative Agriculture program at the University.Learn more about Cooper
International Alumnus of the Year, Dr Sara Shashaani
Completing her Bachelor of Applied Computing at Southern Cross in 2010, Sara is an esteemed researcher in climate-induced learning and prediction. As Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University, she aims to contribute to sustainable solutions and support vulnerable communities.Learn more about Sara
Early Career Alumnus of the Year, Mitch Lavelle
Mitch is a mechanical engineer at Gilmour Space Technologies, leading provider of Australian-made launch vehicles and satellite platforms. The company is on track to launch its Eris rockets and G-class satellite platforms into Low Earth Orbits soon and Mitch is the responsible engineer for the first stage main tank, as well as the entire second stage of the Eris Block 1 vehicle.Learn more about Mitch
Community Impact Alumnus of the Year, Evangeline Wood
Evangeline recently completed a Bachelor of Laws with Honours and is also a volunteer firefighter and Founder and President of Coolamon Community, a group dedicated to connecting Aboriginal mothers with culturally safe healthcare. Evie started Coolamon Community in 2021 and the group has since delivered more than 400 Coolamon cribs to First Nations mothers.Learn more about Evangeline