New medical students’ passion for service evident at 2023 White Coat Ceremony

August 28, 2023

As incoming medical students described their motivation to pursue studies at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, a common theme arose: the desire to make an impact and give back to their communities. This passion was on full display as the newest Doctor of Medicine (MD) cohort began their journey into the medical profession at the White Coat Investiture Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

The White Coat Investiture Ceremony celebrates students’ accomplishments to date and welcomes them to the medical profession in an event that underscores the value of compassion and humanism in medicine. As the first occasion on which students don their signature white coat, the ceremony symbolizes for many a dream long in the making. Members of this class had pivotal moments of their lives upended during periods of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, solidifying their desire to pursue medicine.

“We are really excited to welcome our new students to our campus and the profession of medicine,” said Dr. Gwenevere C. McIntosh, associate dean for students. “The White Coat Ceremony represents the culmination of so much hard work to get here and the start of a new journey into medicine.”

Continued strong interest in the school’s MD program has resulted in record numbers of applications in recent years. The 2023 class of 172 students was selected from 6,339 applicants. The majority hail from Wisconsin — from small towns and dairy farms to suburbs and urban metropolises — and half earned their undergraduate degree from UW–Madison or another UW System institution. The class represents more than 20 states across the country.

A third of the students in the class are members of racial or ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the field of medicine, and 14% were the first person in their family to earn an undergraduate degree. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the school is one of the leading MD programs in the country for enrolling Native American students. The incoming class includes seven Native students representing six Native Nations.

Dr. Robert N. Golden, dean of the school, addressed the students to share wisdom during what he sees as a pivotal time in medicine.

“I can’t think of a better place to be starting your training than here, at the nation’s first school of medicine and public health,” he said.

The integration of public health into the MD curriculum provides insights critical to creating solutions for pressing issues in health care, according to Golden.

“You will learn how to promote health, as well as diagnose and treat illness,” he added. “You will learn how to take the pulse of a community, in addition to the pulse of your patient. As you discover the beautiful complexities of organ systems, you will also learn about the messy inefficiencies of health care systems. And we hope to instill in you a commitment to continue to fight against health disparities, recognizing that access to healthy living and health care is a fundamental right.”

Six incoming medical students being helped into white coats by faculty
Incoming Doctor of Medicine (MD) students don their white coats for the first time at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s White Coat Ceremony. The event serves to welcome students to the profession of medicine and highlight the importance of compassion and humanism in the field.
Photo by Media Solutions

Golden encouraged students to take advantage of the numerous opportunities available during their medical training, such as gaining experience caring for rural and urban communities or pursuing special training in research, public health, medical education, bioethics or interprofessional practice and education.

“Regardless of your current interests, I strongly encourage you to explore those areas of medicine that you believe you are not interested in,” he said. “There’s always the chance you might change your mind, but no matter what you pursue, you — and your future patients — will benefit from the broader, more complete perspective you will gain.”

Robert J. Dempsey, MD, Manucher Javid Professor and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, gave the faculty keynote speech. Dempsey shared lessons learned from his wide-ranging career spanning three decades at the school. Encouraging students to reflect on the theme “who inspires you,” he recalled impactful mentors who helped launched a career that has taken him across the world to help build self-sustaining medical programs that serve local communities.

“I’ve worked on five continents, I’ve met people worldwide, and I assure you that each of us have the same values or pillars of our life: faith or values, family, peace and health,” Dempsey said. “If one of them crumbles, all of them will. If we in our own small way can do something to build one of those pillars, we may just be able to support them all.”

All roads lead to medical school: students take diverse paths to medicine

The newest crop of medical students clearly plan to take their speakers’ advice, keeping an open mind about future specialties while staying laser-focused on their passion for helping others.

Incoming student Mike Plaza grew up in Rothschild, Wis., near Wausau, and attended the United States Air Force Academy to complete an undergraduate degree in engineering. While he knew he wanted to become a physician in high school, he charted a different path initially in active duty as a civil engineer. He then spent a few years at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, joined by a woman he met at the academy who would later become his wife.

In 2021, Plaza was deployed to Afghanistan from June until October. He described how the solitude of the desert helped him reflect on his life and career. Package delivery to the desert made it possible for him to order an MCAT study guide and make a plan for applying to medical school.

“On a deployment, you’re basically stripped down to a bare minimum where you have your meals, your laundry, your work within walking distance and a lot of time to reflect, and I think that was the final straw,” he said. “I returned to my roots and that dream of becoming a doctor. I thought, I’ve had this dream since I was 15 so let’s make it happen.”

Medical student Mike Plaza receiving his first white coat from faculty
Mike Plaza receives his white coat on stage. A Wisconsin native, Plaza attended the Air Force Academy and had a career in the military as an engineer before further pursuing his dream of becoming a physician.
Photo by Media Solutions

Coming to Madison holds special meaning for Plaza. For the first time in years and likely for the last time in the foreseeable future, he will live relatively close to his family in northern Wisconsin. He is attending medical school through the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program and after graduation will return to active duty as a resident physician.

He will also train at UW Health where, against all odds, his best friend’s father recovered from a diagnosis of terminal cancer. When Plaza was a freshman in high school, his best friend’s father was told he had six months to live. The family sought care at UW Health and the father was enrolled in a novel drug trial. He is still living today.

“That experience had an enormous impact on me and was my initial spark,” Plaza said. “To be joining the medical profession and receiving training at the same hospital is a dream.”

Students hope to serve communities and address health inequities

For Chicago native Ka’Derricka Davis, MPH, starting medical school is the culmination of years of hard work. She grew up on the west side of the city in a predominantly Black neighborhood, noticing from an early age the inequities in access to health and health care her community faced.

She said that an adviser in college in Chicago told her she would not be admitted to medical school. Discouraged, she put her aspirations on hold but kept her dream in the back of her mind and kept thinking of ways she might prepare. Davis started a career in teaching and transitioned to a pharmacy technician and finally clinical research at Northwestern University. In 2021, she earned a master’s in public health from Northwestern.

“I am excited to start medical school, although it can be scary as well,” Davis said. “To help support my family, I have worked since I was 14 years old, and this will be the first time I will be able to devote myself full time to my studies. It will take some getting used to. This is something I’ve always wanted and pursued like nothing else in my entire life.”

Ka'Derricka Davis celebrating starting medical school with a bouquet of flowers
Ka'Derricka Davis, MPH, greets a new classmate on the Memorial Union Terrace following the White Coat Ceremony. Davis looks forward to devoting herself full time to her studies and ultimately caring for underserved communities and addressing health inequities.
Photo by Media Solutions

Davis said the support she has received throughout her life has been key, from mentors at Northwestern to her family. Along with loving science in high school, her relationship with her grandparents and mother inspired her career choice. Her grandmother struggled with diabetes and faced challenges accessing care in her medically underserved neighborhood, and Davis’ mother also received poor care during a health emergency. During the worst moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of her community turned to Davis for accurate scientific information about the disease.

“I began to feel like I wanted to be the change and serve my community and others like it,” she said. “This became my ‘why’ and what kept me pushing toward the goal of attending medical school. I would see a picture of my grandmother, hear people talk about their experiences in health care or receive advice from a mentor and be reminded of my goal.”

Fourth-year medical students honored for serving as role models

Each year, the White Coat Investiture Ceremony is coupled with the Gold Humanism Honor Society Induction Ceremony. 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 medical students are selected for induction by their classmates. Those selected also choose two faculty members and a resident who hold their same ideals to be inducted alongside them. The ceremonies are held together to emphasize the importance of humanism in medicine and showcase mentorship between student classes.

“One of the best aspects of your training here will be your interactions with each other, as well as with peers in other classes who are further along in their medical education,” said Elizabeth Petty, MD, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Those in upper classes can serve as role models for you on your journey.”