A white coat has been the most common symbol of the medical profession for more than a century.
Students from the University of Missouri School of Medicine class of 2024 took their first steps toward becoming physicians during a White Coat Ceremony on July 31, 2020. The annual White Coat Ceremony encourages new medical students to begin their education by upholding the highest values and standards of their profession. Many students have spent years anticipating this pivotal moment in their medical career.
We’ve invited five of our students from the Class of 2024 to share what their white coats mean to them and their path to medicine.
Honestly, it’s kind of weird to start medical school in the middle of a global pandemic. Wearing a mask, sitting six feet away from my classmates, without any of my family allowed in the building—this definitely wasn’t how I dreamed my White Coat Ceremony would be. And I had been dreaming of this day for years. Whenever I was feeling confident and self-assured, I’d imagine proudly donning the coat and serving my future patients in the uniform of a healer. When I felt discouraged, I’d mentally push a little further, reminding myself to keep going to secure my white coat. When the moment actually came, and my name was called to put on my first white coat, it felt like both a homecoming and the beginning of a thrilling adventure.
To me, this coat symbolizes all the hard work and support that have been poured into me, and that I will pour into my future patients in turn. I’m grateful thinking of how much energy and effort the School of Medicine faculty and staff put into beginning my medical education by making sure we could safely start classes in-person. This fills me with hope that I’ll continue to receive support and encouragement throughout my four years. Thinking of my family tuning into the livestream from hundreds of miles away made me so proud to show them my commitment to begin paying forward their investment in me and my dreams. Thinking of how much I will love and honor my future patients while working for my MD inspires me to earn my next, longer white coat. And of course, I’m ridiculously proud of myself. My road to medical school was long and winding, but this white coat proves to me and the world that I’ve made it and that I’ll keep going.
“You are meant to be here.”
These words were spoken to us on more than one occasion during orientation week, and I carried them with me as I walked into Jesse Hall for the event I had worked toward for years, our White Coat Ceremony.
As I am sure my classmates can attest, the path to medical school is grueling and filled with uncertainty. I myself am a nontraditional student. I took two gap years to complete a premedical postbaccalaureate program after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, take the MCAT a second time, and undergo the stressful application process. By February 2020, I knew I was waitlisted at both schools where I interviewed. In light of this, I decided to take a step back from work and focus on taking care of myself. I gave myself time and space to heal from past emotional abuse. My safe haven in the performing arts, my incredible support system of family and friends, and the rekindling of my passion for primary care after shadowing my friend and mentor, Dr. Buck, a family physician, changed my life. I built up my confidence and self-worth and discovered I am much stronger than I look, physically and mentally, and I am meant to use my strength to serve humanity as a physician. With a fresh sense of purpose, I reapplied to medical schools in June 2020 and prepared to face the long application cycle again.
Then July 6, I suddenly received a call that I had been accepted off the waitlist at MU School of Medicine! I cannot adequately describe the joy that washed over me in that moment. This is really happening! I am going to be a physician! Someday I will have my own private practice and serve my own patients! Over the next three weeks as I prepared to move to Columbia, I bubbled over with excitement, except for those quiet moments when I would pause and remember with a thrill - by the end of July, I would be wearing my white coat.
Fast forward to the end of orientation week – as I put on my beautiful white coat for the first time in Jesse Hall – I again felt that quiet, solemn sense of happiness and purpose. This feels right. I am meant to be here. To me, my white coat symbolizes how far I have come in life and my pursuit of medicine and my commitment to serve my future patients with integrity and empathy. Donning my white coat represents my promise to empower my patients to discover their inner strength, both physical and mental, and to treat my patients as people first. I will build meaningful relationships with them based on mutual trust and respect. Every time I wear my white coat, I will think about what an honor it is to be a part of this profession. As an MD someday, I will have the opportunity to permanently impact my patients’ quality of life and the lives of everyone who knows and loves them. I cannot imagine a more rewarding life purpose than that.
Scouting the room of M1s, I envisaged that each and every one of us arrived at this moment through different means. Some of us lost loved ones, endured absolute poverty, struggled with mental illness and/or followed an untraditional route. No matter the origin of each path nor the external circumstances that influenced our decision to become a doctor, we all arrived exactly where we wanted to be. To me, my white coat symbolizes the transition from what once was a path and now is a journey. It’s a cloak that represents my lifelong commitment to my patients’ well-being. It’s the formal agreement that I, as a physician, will use my medical education in a responsible and ethical manner to deliver the utmost quality care. The unified white fabric that we as M1s all share is a reminder that we are now a part of something bigger than us, and it is our duty to ensure that we act as an example of what a white coat should represent.
My inspiration to pursue medicine came from my experience as a lifelong football player. When most people watch football, they see men running as fast as they possibly can to impose their will on another player’s body. There is some validity in that perception; however, from my personal experience, football taught me the importance of discipline, service, teamwork, respect, honor, responsibility and resiliency. Physical violence is not taught, it is the unique modality in which a player displays his love for his team. So, when I watch a football game, I see athletes running as fast as they can because of their love and respect for their team, school and organization. When a player puts on his jersey, similar to a doctor donning a white coat, he becomes a vehicle for sharing the values the team represents. At the White Coat Ceremony, I put on my white jersey, looked around at my new team and family and will run as fast as I possibly can to represent to core values of the University of Missouri.
While waiting anxiously to hear my name, I am reminded of how I felt last year while sitting in the very same chairs at Jesse Hall. Unsure of what the third round of my medical school applications would bring, I felt stuck in a limbo of uncertainty about my future. Yet, as I watched my dad bestow the honor of the doctoral hood on my sister during her medical school graduation, I knew that I could not give up on my dream of becoming a doctor.
At my White Coat Ceremony, as I stand in Jesse Hall and put on my white coat for the very first time, I am proud and humbled to follow in the footsteps of my grandma, dad and sister. Although I embark on my own journey of lifelong learning and service for others, I hope to wear my white coat with the same integrity, compassion and love that they exude every day. Overjoyed to have achieved this first step, I am also reminded of the responsibility that comes with the coat. Feeling it veil my shoulders for the first time, its weight and correlating commitment cannot be ignored. Its significance remains long after it is taken off. Starting my medical training amidst a global pandemic and racial turmoil, I also understand that the purity, virtue and transparency of the white coat stem from the promise of the profession rather than the color of the coat. It is a uniform rather than a shield, and I hope it will always give me the courage to stand on the front lines of all crises. As I stand amongst my peers, I understand that the white coat is a promise to my future patients, colleagues and myself, to always listen, learn and advocate for the best practices in health care. With phenomenal mentors, peers and support, I look forward to growing into my white coat over the next four years with the hopes of attaining a longer one.
Our White Coat Ceremony marked the culmination of orientation week and a much-anticipated beginning to our medical school journey for the class of 2024. Although set against the backdrop of one of the most uncommon and memorable years in many of our lives, the exhilaration to begin our medical education and to proudly don our white coats was undeniable. In only a few short days it was clear that our class had already begun to rally together and support one another as we set out to face the challenges of medical school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The special significance of this ceremony at Mizzou Med, in addition to the time-honored tradition of receiving our stethoscopes, made the moment all the more unforgettable.
For myself, receiving my white coat meant finally having the opportunity to begin a career I had long dreamed of undertaking. As a non-traditional student having spent a career working alongside physicians in the medical device industry, I’d envisioned myself one day entering medical school and putting on the white coat. Sitting and listening to our deans and upperclassmen tell of their own personal journeys to medical school, I felt incredibly honored to be starting my medical career at an institution that is the leader in patient-based education and serves as a model for medical education around the world. Supported by amazing faculty and thousands of successful Mizzou Med physician alumni, I knew I was embarking on a new chapter that would undoubtably lead to great things.
During the ceremony, Dr. Young-Walker’s address to the families of our class was particularly meaningful. Her words reminded me of how much our support networks have meant along the path to medical school. The sacrifices and support of our families, friends and colleagues so that we may pursue our dreams of becoming physicians cannot be overstated. So, it was with a profound sense of gratitude that I put on my white coat for the first time. My reasons for pursuing a career in medicine, which include a passion for learning and a commitment to scientific discovery while serving and advocating for the health and well-being of patients, also include a sense of loyalty and appreciation for those who helped me to be here. As Dean Zweig eloquently stated, responding to the needs of our patients will provide us with the opportunity to find shared meaning and purpose throughout the next four years as the class of 2024. And it is this sense of purpose and responsibility to our patients, families, classmates and teachers that will serve to make us leaders in our respective fields in the years ahead.
* some of these stories have been edited slightly for style and brevity