St George Illawarra Dragons second-rower Joel Thompson and four other NRL stars recently completed an eye-opening one-week trip to the US with NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana after receiving academic excellence awards.

Dene Halatau and Bronson Harrison were recipients of the Pasifika Academic Excellence Award while George Rose and Joel Thompson received Indigenous Academic Excellence Awards, which included the US trip as part of their Community and Player Education award prize.

Highlights included a chance to take in a college NFL game, a trip through south-central Los Angeles, a chance to address the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) Pacific Islander Student Association and also to train the UCLA women's rugby team.

Vagana told NRL.com the whole purpose of the trip was to celebrate the players that are making a positive contribution within the game while also opening their eyes up to the different experiences and challenges of minority groups and aspiring athletes in other countries.

"We went there and did a couple of community visits and spoke to a high school football team. We attended some lectures and presented at some lectures, we met a range of different groups, went to a college football game, met some scouts and some recruits so it was a wide range of different experiences," he said.

Vagana said the players had been struck by the atmosphere at the college football game between USC and Utah, with around 60,000 fans, two marching bands, cheerleaders and the tailgate parties that happen prior to the game. That was followed the next day by a full NFL game between San Diego and Oakland.

"Just seeing how they celebrate sport in general over there from the food to the ushers to the security to the entertainment, it's a different level with everything they do," he said.

The players also spoke to the American Indian studies program and shared their stories and some of the challenges as part of a two hour visit. 

"There was another lecture we attended where the boys spoke about the film industry and how minorities are portrayed and is that positive or negative and how do you have an influence on that, so it wasn't just a sports focus. There were a few things they were exposed to that they hadn't seen before with regard to challenges that some of the local communities have," Vagana added.

The trip through Compton and Watts in south central LA was another eye-opener. 

"All the ghettos, just to see the struggle over there and the divide between the haves and the have-nots. On every street corner there was people begging, there were homeless... it went for block after block after block. It gave an appreciation of how lucky we are but at the same time how much more we can do," Vagana said.

Vagana praised the amount of work NRL players do in their own communities, noting that pro sportspeople in the US seem to be treated like rock stars which can make it hard to get back to their own communities.

"They were really surprised that Georgie Rose was able to go back and play for Walgett in the Koori knockout, they didn't really understand how a professional can go back to play with the town he grew up in. Little things like that we can share with them. They were surprised at the amount of community work we do down here and how the guys use the sport as a vehicle to help the communities and help themselves as well. They really took it on board," Vagana said.

"Joel's been doing a lot of stuff on his own, youth work and juvenile justice, and I know he got a lot out of some of the programs they were doing over there in terms of how to make the stuff he's working on back here even better. It's about improving these guys as individuals and all the stuff off the back of that and all the communities they help."

This article first appeared on NRL.com