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White Coat Ceremony ushers in newest medical students

Aug. 2, 2018, 10:34 AM

Chesley Ekelem receives her white coat from Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, at last week’s White Coat Ceremony for incoming School of Medicine students. (photo by Anne Rayner)

As the 96 members of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s first-year class took their seats at the front of 208 Light Hall, Bonnie Miller, MD, MMHC, welcomed them and their family members to the school’s annual Convocation and White Coat Ceremony.

The feeling in the room was reminiscent of many first days of school — nervousness, excitement and pride. Miller invoked the newest medical students to tap into the curiosity that defines childhood.

Cullen Moran shows off his new coat to the crowd in Light Hall. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“I want you to remain child-like. I hope you keep that inner child alive. I am hereby giving you permission to laugh deeply and frequently with your friends. I am recommending that you sing, dance, play soccer or play kickball, play piano. But childhood is really defined by curiosity, so I will require you to be curious. Be like that annoying but charming child who asks a million questions,” advised Miller, Senior Associate Dean for Health Sciences Education, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Executive Vice President for Educational Affairs, VUMC.

Nearly 30 years ago Vanderbilt first marked the donning of the signature white coat as the official entrance into medical school for first-year students. The ceremony comes at the end of the introductory course, Foundations of the Profession, which gives students an understanding of the values and principles that guide a physician’s relationship with society and patients.

Simone Herzberg shares a laugh with Bonnie Miller, MD, after receiving her coat. (photo by Anne Rayner)

The incoming class was selected from a pool of 5,707 applicants and comes to Vanderbilt from 34 states, eight foreign countries and 54 undergraduate schools with 23 majors. Members of the class include two women who were in the U.S. Navy (one at the U.S. Naval Academy) and a male who was in the U.S. Air Force, a nurse at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, and a student who is partially deaf. This year, 60 percent of the class had at least one transition year before starting medical school and worked as NIH researchers, EPIC employees, medical scribes, and volunteers at senior homes, among other activities.

Fourteen of the students plan to pursue MD/PhD degrees; four students are enrolled in the Medical Innovators Development Program (MIDP), a four-year PhD-to-MD, training curriculum tailored to engineers and applied scientists; and 19 students belong to groups that are underrepresented in medicine.

Co-chairs of the admissions committee and those responsible for selecting the class, Alice Coogan, MD, and Joey Barnett, PhD, read the names of the students as they received their white coats.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of the School of Medicine, Amy Fleming, MD, associate dean for Medical Student Affairs, and André Churchwell, MD, senior associate dean for Diversity Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer, assisted with the distribution of coats.

School of Medicine students recite an oath detailing the obligations of learners and teachers at the conclusion of last week’s ceremony. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Miller thanked the White Coat sponsors who made donations to support the many student activities and organizations that enrich student life at Vanderbilt.

“In class this morning I asked the students to jot down a few personal commitments for the coming years about the kinds of people they hope to become as they are transformed into enlightened change agents. These are in self-addressed envelopes in their pockets. When we place white coats on their shoulders, they will feel the weight not only of the jackets but also of their promises,” Miller said.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, students, along with their advisory college mentors, recited an oath originally composed by the faculty of the University of Namibia Medical School and modified for VUSM that detailed the obligations and responsibilities of learners and their teachers instead of defining those of a physician.

“Wherever you are in Nashville or Namibia, white coats possess a very powerful, universal symbolism, and this should cause you to wear them throughout your careers with a sense of humility and obligation, striving to live up to those very high expectations,” Miller said.

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