Great Expectations: 2014 White Coat Ceremony

Early in the academic year at the UNC School of Medicine, first-year medical students and their families attend the White Coat Ceremony, an annual tradition that recognizes the start of students’ medical careers.

Written by Hannah Crain
Photos by Max Englund and Brian Strickland 

A relatively recent tradition, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation sponsored the first White Coat Ceremony at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1993. “The Gold Foundation seeks to encourage physicians-in-training to become doctors who combine the high-tech skills of cutting-edge medicine with the high-touch skills of effective communication, empathy, and compassion,” said Georgette Dent, MD, Associate Dean for Student Affairs. 

First-year medical student Eric Jernigan participated in the UNC ceremony this past weekend. “The ceremony is unique in that it celebrates expectations rather than accomplishment,” said Jernigan.

Faculty members who have an important role in teaching help the students don their white coats for the first time. Many of the faculty members are involved in the Academy of Educators or serve as student advisors. Julie Byerley, MD, Vice Dean for Education, and leader of the School of Medicine’s new Translational Education at Carolina curriculum, served as keynote speaker at the event. At the end of the ceremony, students recited an “Oath of Student Responsibilities.”

Unique to the UNC School of Medicine tradition is what students find in their coat pockets before the ceremony. Tucked inside is a note with a few “Words of Wisdom” from an alumnus. 

"The note was powerful,” said Daryl Cunningham. “I shed a tear or two when I first read it and I have read it every morning since. It is definitely a cherished possession that I will keep forever."

Dominick Sam DeFelice added, "[The note] meant that there was someone higher up in the health care system that is looking out for me and cares that I do well."

As the gravity of the ceremony registered with each student, so did the ceremony’s moments of levity.

"As I picked up my white coat, Dr. Bashford [Associate Dean for Admissions] began cheering from the balcony above,” said John Cooper, “and I felt that this little coat is somehow special—like a ticket to being part of the medical tradition."

David Schaffer enjoyed the festive atmosphere. "I think picking up the white coats was actually a unique bonding moment for our class,” said Schaffer. “The laughter and excitement booming through Bondurant [Hall] demonstrate how close we've become as a class since we arrived in August."

Eric Jernigan points out that there’s much work yet to be done for him and his classmates as they continue their path toward becoming physicians. “Although the white coat commemorates all of the hard work that went into acceptance at UNC, it is nonetheless a ‘short,’ which underscores the expectation of continued perseverance and professional development,” said Jernigan.