Physicians must be resilient and adaptable. These qualities were on full display as the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health welcomed incoming medical students in a virtual White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 21.

In a typical year, students receive their first white coats on stage in front of family, friends and classmates. However, this is not a typical year. It is the first class of medical students to enter the school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of that, the traditional investiture ceremony was hosted virtually and streamed to the school’s Facebook page to celebrate the students’ entry into the medical profession.

“It was such an exciting day to welcome the new students to the profession of medicine,” says Gwenevere C. McIntosh, MD, MPH, associate dean for students. “This ceremony serves to remind us all what an honor it is to practice medicine.”

A student receives a white coat
Gabriella Minerva Mamlouk, from Raleigh, North Carolina, pauses to pick up her White Coat during a distribution event held outside the UW School of Medicine and Public Health on Monday, Aug. 17. Mamlouk joined 175 other medical students in a virtual investiture ceremony on Friday, celebrating their entry into the medical school.

Students in the new class earned their bachelor’s degrees from universities and colleges large and small, all across the country. The class of 176 students includes 132 from Wisconsin and 97 students who earned their undergraduate degrees within the UW System. Fourteen students earned their bachelor’s degrees from Minnesota campuses and five from schools in California. A total of 30 states are represented.

Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, spoke about the rich makeup of the class in his remarks at the event. About 33 percent of the class identifies with a racial or ethnic background underrepresented in medicine, and first-generation college graduates make up 14 percent of the class.

“You are a remarkable class that has followed many different paths to arrive here,” Golden told the new students. “We are very thankful to have such a diverse group, with a rich array of backgrounds, experiences, and talents. These diverse backgrounds and experiences will enhance your education — and make our school a better place.”

Students have also excelled as athletes, musicians, volunteers, and researchers. Some, such as Kevin Franco Valle, are joining medical school after having other careers. Franco Valle, a nurse, was named a Top Nurse of Madison by Madison Magazine in 2018 and is now pursuing his medical degree.

“It is important to acknowledge the difficult times we are living in as we learn to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “It has made me reflect on how important it is to look out for each other and keep each other safe. Thus, as I wear this white coat, I am making a promise to dedicate my life to the service of humanity and to use our collective efforts to help all lead healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives.”

A student receives a stethoscope
Students also received a stethoscope while picking up their white coats prior to the online ceremony. New medical students receive their first stethoscope as a gift from alumni as part of a long-standing tradition organized by the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association.

Golden also discussed how the public health crises of COVID-19 and racism are combining to lay bare inequities and health disparities for those in communities of Black, Indigenous and people of Color.

“The current COVID-19 pandemic is a horrible confirmation of the critical need for the integrated approach we employ in our school of medicine and public health,” he said. “We trust you will learn from the medical and public health impacts of this novel virus and longstanding racism and help develop and implement the tools that are needed to eliminate both of these scourges.”

The faculty keynote speaker for the ceremony was Rebecca Minter, MD, the A.R. Curreri Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery. She left students with three messages: care for patients, not about them; remember to take care of yourself and enjoy the ride; and take care of each other.

“You are about to embark on an incredible journey that is unlike any other,” she told students. “Congratulations on all that you have achieved to be sitting here today and enjoy the journey ahead. It is lifelong and this is just the beginning.”

The white coats are gifted to students by the Wisconsin Medical Society. Students also receive their first stethoscope as a welcome to their medical education, which are donated by alumni through the school’s Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association. The presidents of both organizations also briefly addressed the new students.

Each year, the White Coat Ceremony is coupled with the induction of fourth-year students into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. The society is one of many programs sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, an organization devoted to elevating the principles of humanism in medicine. Fourth-year students are selected by their classmates to be inducted into the society. Those inductees then elect two faculty members and one resident to join them in the society. The induction serves to introduce new medical students to members of older classes who can serve as friends and mentors.

“The mission of this society is to recognize and encourage the development of humanism, compassion, integrity, respect, and service toward patients and colleagues,” Golden said. “We recognize that these aspects of a physician are as important as academic and technical excellence, and we wish to encourage our students and ourselves to develop these attributes over the course of their lives and careers.”

The virtual format opened up the ceremony to more spectators than usual as family members, such as those who would have difficulty traveling even during more normal times were able to gather and tune in from across the globe. More than 500 streams occurred during the ceremony.

A downloadable program for the event, as well as photos of students picking up their coats, can be viewed on the White Coat Ceremony page.

“I am thrilled to be starting medical school at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health,” says entering student Leah Gruen. “The current times we are in have only furthered my interest in improving our public health approaches, and this school offers a unique perspective in learning to care for individuals as well as greater populations and communities as a whole.”