White coat ceremony completes wardrobe for medical students
When first-year students begin their studies at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) in late July, they immediately wear the many roles and responsibilities of future physicians. Sporting stethoscopes and toting their laptops, they learn the basics of interviewing patients and conducting physical exams, they study cell biology and musculoskeletal anatomy, and they develop the foundations of their future research along with an understanding of health systems science.
These new students look the part of future physicians except for one fundamental piece of wardrobe – the white coat.
The white coat is one of the most celebrated symbols of the medical profession, but at VTCSOM, new students must fully understand its meaning before they may wear it. On Friday at a special ceremony in Roanoke, 49 first-year students took the Hippocratic oath and made their commitment to the profound connection between the white coat and the medical practice of humanism.
“We hold our white coat ceremony in October, after our students complete the first block of the curriculum as well as a series of meaningful sessions on the doctor-patient relationship,” said Lee Learman, dean of VTCSOM. “They have time to form a class identity, reflect on what the white coat symbolizes to them, and develop a set of principles that will guide their care of patients throughout their careers.”
This year, Class President Alyssa Sze and Vice President Carter Gottschalk read the Class of 2026’s guiding principles at the ceremony.
“I think for my class, this ceremony symbolizes not only the ‘true’ beginning of our medical journey and the hard work it took to reach this point, but also our commitment to the incredible responsibility it represents,” Sze said. “That is to say, our work is only just beginning!”
Liz Gienger wears her new white coat while holding her son, Elijah, at the VTCSOM White Coat Ceremony reception. Photos by Natalee Waters for Virginia Tech.
The first white coat ceremony was held at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York in 1993, supported by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. The purpose of the ceremony is to clarify for students, before their entrance into the medical community, that a physician’s responsibility is both to take care of patients and to care for patients. In other words, doctors should care as well as cure.
The VTCSOM white coat ceremony was made possible in part by a grant from the Gold Foundation, and for several years, Virginia Tech alumnus and physician Richard Wardrop has donated the cost of the white coats for new VTCSOM students.
“The significance of the white coat lies in the meaning placed on it by the wearer. We try and convince our students that the white coat represents professionalism, integrity, and a commitment patient care,” said Aubrey Knight, senior dean for student affairs.
This year’s keynote speaker at the white coat ceremony was Michael Nussbaum, who was recently inducted into the Academy of Master Surgeon Educators. Nussbaum emphasized the critical role that compassion must have for any physician and counseled the students to strive for excellence when wearing their white coats.
“When providing medical care, we trust that we will improve the health of our patients. We offer our skills and experience while believing in our teams and ourselves. We trust our judgment and treatment plan. We usually are successful, and when complications arise, we manage them responsibly with compassion and persistence,” Nussbaum told the students. “Be bold and decisive. Never lose sight of the people who have entrusted their lives and the lives of their loved ones to you. Strive to make your best decisions on their behalf and wear your white coats with pride and confidence.”
At the end of their second year, class members will convene for the student clinician’s ceremony before embarking on their clinical rotations. The students will again read their guiding principles and reaffirm their commitments to a humanistic approach to patient care. Much like the white coat, they will carry it with them throughout their careers.
“To me, my white coat represents the beginning of a career in the service of and for others. It represents my commitment to the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, excellence, and the responsibility I will have as a future educator and advocate,” Sze said. “I am incredibly proud to be able to celebrate this milestone with my classmates and look forward to sharing the next four years (and beyond) with the VTCSOM community.”