Wearing matching Bucky Badger masks and exchanging elbow bumps, incoming medical students at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health donned their first white coats at a ceremony on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.

The White Coat Investiture Ceremony is a rite of passage that emphasizes the importance of compassionate patient care as MD students start their journey into the medical profession.

This is the second class of students to begin their degree program during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s ceremony was in a fully virtual format. This year, in-person participation in the traditional investiture ceremony was limited to students and academic leadership, and the event was live-streamed to the school’s Facebook page for viewing by family, friends, and the public.

“We were so glad to be able to welcome the new students to the profession of medicine safely in person this year,” says Gwenevere C. McIntosh, MD, MPH, associate dean for students. “This is always a wonderful ceremony to attend because so many of us remember the awe and humility we felt the first time we put on our own white coat.”

Incoming medical students stand on stage before donning their coats and getting a congratulatory elbow bump from administrative and student leaders serving as ceremony officiants. Even prior to starting their medical degree program, this class has already spent more than 200,000 hours engaged in scientific discovery.

This year the school received more than 6,400 applications — the largest pool of applicants in the 114-year history of the medical degree program. First-year medical students have earned undergraduate degrees from universities and colleges large and small throughout the United States. The class of 176 students includes 122 who hail from Wisconsin and 83 students who completed their undergraduate degrees at a UW System institution. Fourteen students earned their bachelor’s degrees from Minnesota campuses and nine from schools in California. A total of 28 states are represented.

Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, spoke about the poignancy of the moment as students start medical school during a pandemic that continues to impact the entire globe.

“Talk about being in the proverbial right place, at the right time,” he said. “The horrible COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in a brutal way the vital role that physicians play in protecting the health of people and populations. When we announced 15 years ago that we were transforming into the nation’s first school of medicine and public health, a few skeptics asked ‘why?’ The snippet of RNA responsible for the worst pandemic in a century has provided the answer.”

Terrill Taylor dons a white coat during a ceremony livestreamed to friends and family on Facebook. Nearly 500 households tuned in from locations across the country from Jacksonville, Florida to Sitka, Alaska and from the UK to Honduras.

“You have followed many unique paths to arrive here, and we are grateful to have such a diverse group with a rich array of backgrounds, experiences, and talents,” Golden told the new students. “All of you contribute to the diverse melting pot that enhances not only our school, but the practice of medicine.”

Golden’s closing advice to students: first, to purposely explore areas of medicine that you don’t think will end up being your passion; and secondly, to come together as a class.

“There’s always the chance you might change your mind, and no matter what you pursue, you will benefit from the broader, more complete perspective you will gain,” he said. “The process of gaining acceptance into medical school is very competitive, and at times individual achievement receives more attention than collaborative teamwork. I know you will follow the school’s tradition of coming together as a class, supporting and helping each other.”

Prior to medical school, students excelled as athletes, musicians, volunteers, and researchers. Many are fresh from their undergraduate years, while others began careers, served in the armed forces, or started families before pursuing their passion for medicine.

First-year (M1) student Ashley Portillo Recinos has the honor of achieving many firsts for her family: The first to graduate high school, earn an undergraduate degree, and begin medical school.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, she graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2018 and worked as a research coordinator. She says she knew she wanted to become a physician from an early age. When she was 10 years old, her grandmother was visiting from Central America and Portillo Recinos’ mother thought she looked ill. A trip to the doctor revealed a diagnosis of blood cancer.

She spent many of her pre-teen years watching her grandmother and family struggle to access medical care, often going to the hospital alone with her grandmother. Portillo Recinos tried her best to translate complicated diagnoses and treatment plans and empower her grandmother to take an active role in her medical care.

“I saw how these issues affected my grandmother and how she struggled to understand her medical progress,” Portillo Recinos says. “I wanted to be of aid and knew it wasn’t just my grandmother who was having trouble. I knew I needed to be the change myself. Since then, the seed was planted.”

Although her grandmother passed away in 2010, Portillo Recinos’ experience sparked an interest in oncology and minority health and a passion for patient education and communication.

“I’ve had to pave much of my own way in my life, and I’m still doing that in medical school,” she says. “I am very excited that this is finally happening. Although I wanted to be a doctor since I was 10, it felt so far away, but now it’s real. It’s great to share this with my family. I am the oldest of four siblings so I am proud to be able to show them that, while it may be challenging, nothing is impossible.”

This year’s faculty speaker was Peter Newcomer, MD, MMM, professor of medicine and senior associate dean for clinical affairs. He talked with students about the trials and triumphs that mark a career in medicine and thanked them for stepping up to serve people in need.

Newcomer emphasized three critical qualities that students should strive to sustain: courage, compassion, and kindness.

“The courage to stand up and make a difference and say I am going to use my skills, intelligence, passion, and heart to make others’ lives better,” he said in his keynote address to students. “Compassion for the struggles and suffering of our fellow humans, and most importantly the kindness to act and try to improve the lives of those around you. During all the upcoming quizzes, tests, patient rounds, cram sessions, feedback sessions, and learning how to be a doctor you cannot lose those three things that brought you here today.”

The white coats themselves are gifts to students from the Wisconsin Medical Society. On August 26, students will also receive their first stethoscopes, which are donated by alumni through the school’s Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association. The presidents of both organizations also briefly addressed the new students.

Additionally, the White Coat Ceremony includes the induction of fourth-year students into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. The society is sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, an organization devoted to elevating the principles of humanism, compassion, integrity, respect, and service 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 other classes who can serve as friends and mentors.

Each year, rising fourth-year medical students are elected by their classmates to be inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. The society is dedicated to the ideals of humanism, compassion, integrity, respect, and service in medicine. Students receive a lapel pin during their induction ceremony.

The virtual format opened up the ceremony to more spectators than usual since family members were able to gather and tune in from across the globe. Nearly 500 households watched from locations across the nation – from Jacksonville, Florida to Sitka, Alaska – and from international locations including the United Kingdom and Honduras.

A downloadable program for the event and a photo gallery are both available on the White Coat Ceremony page.