Mia Usman/Staff Illustrator

When I was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around my neck. My mom likes to say that the struggle for my first breath is part of what’s made me a good athlete; as a cross country and track runner, I’m grateful for my breath every day. Today, I believe that my ingrained appreciation for a good, full breath of air helped me decide to call Emory University my home. 

I visited Emory for the first time as a junior in high school. As a Pittsburgh native, I was impressed by the warmth and beauty of the campus, but it was the admissions session that ignited my love for the school. I remember sitting in the room while Madeline Clifton talked about her experience as an Emory student prior to becoming an admissions officer. Her story made me feel that Emory would care for and nurture me as a human being, whether I was succeeding or failing and whether or not I knew precisely what I wanted to be or do with my life. For the first time in the college decision process, I felt able to breathe. That breath of relief left tears in my eyes while I sat in that sunny room in the admissions office, and I knew I’d found the place I wanted to call home. 

Emory has continued to allow and encourage me to breathe, and every day I’m grateful for my breath. On quiet mornings, I listen to the comforting rhythm of my teammates’ breaths as we run in the dark through Lullwater. On other days, it delivers oxygen to my muscles while I run laps around the track, racing to a new school record or national title. The best Wednesday mornings require an expertly balanced breath — enough to run down Atlanta’s BeltLine while contributing to the unique array of 7 a.m. mid-run conversations. 

I’ve also had the opportunity to watch incredible people use breath to transform lives and spaces throughout these past four years. In this last semester of my time at Emory, Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva created the most meaningful course of my college career, using breathing to establish safety, community and compassion in a classroom. His teaching and guidance, grounded in the power of the mind-body connection, fostered hope for a kind, compassionate and healthy world. I’ve watched Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, the co-founder and Director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, begin to heal a class after the death of a classmate, guided by the simple act of breathing. And I’ve learned to use breathing to make an impact on the lives of others. As a peer health partner, I guided HLTH 100 first-year students through meditation and breathing exercises that showed me the personal impact and relative rarity of stopping to take a breath.

Academic exploration in human health, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has shown me that a breath of fresh air is never promised. In my junior year, I discovered my passion for health writing, a passion I’m grateful I’ll be able to continue as a career after graduation. As one of my first experiences with health writing, I explored the systemic racial injustices that lead Black Americans to breathe, on average, less clean air than white Americans. I watched the news every night during a semester at home with my family while hospitals overflowed with patients unable to breathe on their own. 

I’d encourage other Emory students to take advantage of the freedom of breath, explore its power and be grateful for the fresh air of the Quad where we graduate. 

Annika Urban is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, graduating with degrees in human health and political science. As a member of Emory’s cross country and track and field teams, she is a national champion in the indoor track mile and a five-time All-American. Urban wrote for Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health blog, Exploring Health, and was the co-president of TableTalk Emory. Urban will be an associate editor in health at U.S. News & World Report upon graduation.