Medical Students Reflect on What Their White Coats Mean to Them

Brooke Burton receives her white coat

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 2025 took their first steps toward becoming physicians during a White Coat Ceremony on July 30, 2021.

We invited five students from the Class of 2025 to share what their white coats mean to them.

Karolina Pogorzelski St. Peters, Missouri

Karolina Pogorzelski St. Peters, Missouri

I have no doubt that 2020 will go down in history as one of the most notable due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the entire world, it was a time of hardship and change. Yet, listening to Dr. Gregory Worsowicz deliver the keynote speech during the White Coat Ceremony, I realized that the pandemic had also been a time of learning and growth as I worked on the front lines as an ICU technician and observed the physicians around me. They worked tirelessly to not only continue providing excellent patient care but also to develop and institute strategies to manage the crisis safely. Each day, their leadership helped everyone cope with the stress of working through the unknown and served as a constant source of inspiration. To me, donning the white coat is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, dedication and sacrifice on the part of my parents, who worked so hard to give me the opportunity to fulfill my dream. It’s also a symbol of the expectations I have for myself: to one day be a physician leader, like those I saw while working during the pandemic.

The medical field is, at its core, collaborative. Professionals come from all over the world with different backgrounds to serve a single purpose: provide the highest quality of care for those in need. While sitting in Jesse Hall, white coat around my shoulders and surrounded by my fellow classmates, I knew that I was joining a group of individuals who would always be there for me and push me to be better than I ever imagined. Now, when I wear my white coat, I know that I have both the privilege and responsibility to be a part of this team. The next four years won't be easy, but when times become difficult, I will look at my white coat to remind myself of the future I am working toward and the patients I will one day have the privilege to care for.

Micaela Kemerling St. Joseph, Missouri

Micaela Kemerling St. Joseph, Missouri

The journey to receiving my white coat was grounded in my success, trials, diverse experiences and unique background as a minority student. As a member of the first class of the PAWS (Pathways to Success) program through the School of Medicine and MedOpp Advising Program, I gained an amazing support system of minority pre-medical students and faculty members who helped propel me into my acceptance. At the same time, I gained an increased awareness and knowledge of the systemic racism within the health care system and lack of diversity in the medical field. The long hours of studying, shadowing, volunteering and working only took me so far to get me where I am today. It was the passion I had to improve the diversity of our medical field that carried me the rest of the way.

When my white coat was cast over my shoulders, it was no longer about me. It is now about continuing to mentor younger PAWS members in their journey to pursuing medicine as part of a minority community. It is about being a role model for Hispanic women, like me, to chase their dream of becoming a physician despite the barriers. It is about being a part of changing the mold of systemically racist health care systems, while contributing to a more diverse and inclusive work atmosphere among physicians. To me, the white coat symbolizes the bridge between working on ourselves (to get into medical school) and working for our patients now that we've finally made it. Receiving my white coat this weekend signified all the hard work I have and will be putting in the next four years to create systemic change and foster patient relationships that truly change the narrative of traditional medicine.

Brooke Burton Hannibal, Missouri

Brooke Burton Hannibal, Missouri

As I stretched my arms into the sleeves of my white coat, I envisioned my future patients. To me, my white coat symbolizes the beginning of a life devoted to the service of others.

The journey to becoming a physician begins long before the White Coat Ceremony. It involves early exposure to the field of medicine through continuous physician shadowing, volunteering, research and employment opportunities. It requires ambition, discipline and resilience to be accepted into medical school in the first place. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that helped me arrive at this milestone. Every experience, both the peaks and the valleys, have shaped me into the person I am today. Receiving my white coat felt much like putting the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place — then almost simultaneously beginning a new one.

My ambition is to become the best physician I can be for my patients. I desire to have the expertise of the cardiac surgeon who saved my grandma’s life during her heart procedure. I strive to have the same empathy and trustworthiness as the hospice nurse who cared for my grandpa during his final weeks of life. I hope to have the same compassion for my career as my mentor, a pediatrician in my hometown who finds joy in making small differences in the lives of her patients and their families.

Every time I put on my white coat, I will remember the Declaration of Geneva. I will remember the feeling of pledging to dedicate my life to the service of humanity — with the highest degree of autonomy, empathy and respect — alongside my cohorts in Jesse Hall. As we strive toward earning our long white coats, may we never lose sight of what drew us to medicine. We are no longer learning for ourselves, but we are learning for our patients.

Jaxsen Ball St. Charles, Missouri

Jaxsen Ball St. Charles, Missouri

At the tender age of 18, my father sought to encourage me with unforgettable words: “Jaxsen, you’re smart. You can do anything you want in life — except perhaps becoming a rocket scientist or a doctor.” At the time, I never dreamed of medicine, but no one in my family had ever been a doctor and I certainly didn’t have the grades to become one, or so we thought.

Years of service as a mental health clinician propelled me to become the change I so desperately sought to see in this world. That change is an increase in the number of person-centered, empathetic, open-minded physicians. I did not pursue medicine because it is what I loved but because it is what I realized I must do. It is my fierce belief that there is no motivator more powerful than one’s duty to leaving this universe a better place than the day we entered it.

Words cannot capture the tremendous flood of emotions that I was submerged beneath as I slipped into a white coat for the first time; instead, I reflected on the magnitude of the commitment I was making and my motivation for making it. This white coat is potential realized — not just my own but of every single patient I will ever interact with. What was draped across my shoulders in Jesse Auditorium was not a mere textile: It was the unequivocal contributions of my support system, the unwavering fortitude of the patients I will serve and the unfathomable wisdom of the physicians who came before me. I will fight with every cell in my body to make you proud, for I know your love is what composes these white threads.

Yak Nak Kansas City, Missouri

Yak Nak Kansas City, Missouri

As I walked across the stage to put on my white coat for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel immense gratitude. Gratitude in having a strong support system in my family, friends and mentors. Gratitude in being supported by numerous faculty who are deeply invested in our success as future physicians. Gratitude in being surrounded by 127 classmates who are united around the common cause of becoming patient-centered physicians. In that moment, as I put on my white coat, I was filed with gratefulness in entering a sacred profession in which I will be granted the immense duty and privilege of alleviating pain and suffering of others.

To me, the white coat is more than a symbol, it is a rite a passage into a journey of life-long learning and commitment to quality patient care. In reflection, the experiences and hardships I have experienced are what allowed me to be placed in such a position. My journey to the white coat began with sacrifice. My family was driven out of a war-torn country before I was even 5 years old. We entered the United States as immigrants, empty handed, new to the culture, new to the language and new to the environment. However, my parents stood steadfast in their belief that their children will grow up to achieve their greatest ambitions, with the hope that we would give back to those still suffering in South Sudan. So, my calling into medicine has always been greater than myself. It has been about giving back to my communities both nationally and globally. The collective experience of being an immigrant from humble beginnings allowed me to fight through hardships throughout my journey. Whenever I struggled along this path to receiving the white coat — be it academically, emotionally or physically — I remind myself of the help I can provide as a physician to those with the greatest need. I hope to carry this same motivation and guidance throughout my four years at Mizzou Med.

Once we donned our white coats, my peers and I made a commitment to dedicating our life, above all else, to the needs of our patients. I am excited to grow into a compassionate, competent and ethically sound patient-centered physician. This white coat marks the beginning of our journey to becoming doctors, and I look forward to positively impacting the lives of my future patients here in Missouri and beyond.

*Some of these stories have been edited slightly for style and brevity