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In early May, Emily Brennan proudly represented Auburn University’s College of Agriculture as graduation marshal. Shortly thereafter, the animal sciences alumna boarded a plane that took her 8,141 miles away from Auburn for a six-month internship in Nairobi, Kenya. By this fall, she will be back in the United States—at Emory University in Atlanta, to be exact—to begin graduate school in public health and nutrition.
The path Brennan is blazing for herself is certainly taking her all over the map, literally and figuratively, but that is nothing new for this engaged and engaging young woman. In fact, being brave enough to go off her original path was the first step in the journey.
As a college freshman, the Jacksonville, Fla., native left her family to enroll at Auburn, drawn here for its renowned College of Veterinary Medicine.
Throughout her years at Auburn, Brennan not only excelled in her classes but also embraced the whole Auburn experience, serving as parent coordinator and president of the Auburn University rowing team, president of the college’s Ag Ambassadors and student editor of Auburn University Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship, an undergraduate research journal for the university. She also assisted in molecular biology research for the College of Sciences and Mathematics through Auburn’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship program and was one of only two students who represented Auburn on an agricultural exchange tour to Taiwan in the summer of 2010.
She also received numerous honors and awards during her college career, including the Goldwater Scholarship for engineering, math or science students; The President’s Award for the College of Agriculture; induction into several honoraries; and, of course, serving as graduation marshal for the spring 2012 commencement ceremonies. As the first undergraduate student to complete a College of Veterinary Medicine minor in public health, she was also featured on the cover and in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Auburn Veterinarian, a publication produced by Auburn’s veterinary college.
All the while Brennan also held a part-time job, was very involved with her church and trained for marathons but also enjoyed spending what little down time she had with her sister, Katie—who was her roommate and a fellow student here at Auburn—and their 14-pound cat, Jackson.
That may seem like the life of someone absolutely sure of the path she was taking. For several years it seemed that way to Brennan, too, who had chosen to major in animal sciences on the way to becoming a veterinarian. Everything was smooth sailing until, as junior, Brennan experienced a year of multiple difficult courses, little sleep and, after working at a veterinary clinic, the realization that vet school was not the right path for her to take.
“One mistake that I made during my college career was not being able to change my mind,” Brennan says. “I had a plan, but I didn’t want to steer away from it even though I knew it wasn’t the right thing for me.”
After months of sleep deprivation, studying and soul searching, Brennan finally accepted the fact that her heart was not in a career as a veterinarian. Her heart was, however, in the field of public health and nutrition, a program that ties in closely with agriculture but that also appealed to Brennan’s desire to make a difference in the world.
This course of study and her interest in helping on an international level in developing countries are what led her to Kenya.
There, she is working with the Makina Community Development Project, or Macodep, a nonprofit organization headquartered in the town of Kibera, home to more than a million people, many of whom live in conditions of poor sanitation, minimal amounts of clean water and limited healthcare.
Macodep focuses on improving the overall welfare of local people by offering services such as laboratory testing, home-based AIDS/HIV care and finding homes for orphaned children. Brennan’s role is to help women farmers there improve herd health in cattle, which ultimately can improve the economic and nutritional status of the community.
No doubt Brennan’s summer will be full of experiences that take her down many new paths, but she is headed into the world feeling prepared. Her experience at Auburn—from the opportunities she had to walk into any office on Ag Hill and talk to her professors about topics other than class to the many responsibilities she took on and learned from—had a profound impact on Brennan.
“Auburn shaped me, and it was really sad to leave,” she says. "I know everyone says the same thing, but it is so true.”
And before she left Auburn, Brennan had a bit of advice for current and future students.
“Think big, and don’t be defined by what other people do,” she says.
“You can change your mind,” she adds. “It’s OK to do that. Find what you love, and find a way to get there and do it."