Pandemic-era White Coat Ceremony makes history
July 30, 2020
By Anne Christiansen-Bullers
Traditionally, the White Coat Ceremony at the University of Kansas School of Medicine is a memory-making moment.
Incoming students symbolically join the medical profession by donning their jackets and then celebrate the educational and professional milestone.
The class of 2023, who donned their coats in a pre-pandemic era, gathered together with friends and family at Memorial Hall in downtown Kansas City. The class of 2024 had to find a new way to celebrate that milestone moment.
In July 2020, medical students sent a Zoom videoconference link to friends and family so they could gather around their computer monitors or cell phones. With the threat of COVID-19 transmission, it was the safest way to share this momentous occasion while physically remaining apart.
"Becoming a doctor for me was my calling. My passion for medicine, lifelong learning, and assisting those in need were a few of the reasons I pursued medical school." — Flavia McBride
"When I tried on the white coat, immediately as they handed it to me at the Health Education Building, it felt like life was starting all over again! Like I had just opened a completely different book of life than I had before, and I was excited for it." — De'mond Glynn
"To me, the white coat is a symbol of commitment to all of my future patients, becoming the best physician I️ can possibly be, and taking pride and being a positive force in the field of medicine. For my friends and family who have watched me through the trial and error of getting into medical school, I️ think they see the white coat as a symbol of success in being one step closer to my goal of being a physician. — Adrienne Esposito
Comments of congratulations
Tuned in were 771 unique sites with an unknowable number of eyes viewing the proceedings and an unseen number of smiles in the virtual "crowd."
Nonetheless, the crowd made its excitement known by sending more than 200 comments of congratulations through the chat function in Zoom. In business meetings, this interface can be used to ask questions in text form without interrupting the proceedings. In a White Coat Ceremony, it apparently can be implemented as digital applause. A few examples, as written, appear on this page.
Answering a professional calling
Akinlolu Ojo, MD, Ph.D., MBA, executive dean of the KU School of Medicine, delivered the keynote address. His speech was titled "Starting Medical School During a Global Pandemic- Making History in Answering a Professional Calling!"
"That this ceremony today is virtual does not diminish the great importance of this day for each of you, members of the class of 2024," Ojo said. "And the fact that this ceremony is virtual does not diminish the importance of this day for me personally, and the sense of privilege that I have to participate in my first White Coat Ceremony in the role of the executive dean of the School of Medicine."
Ojo began his executive role at the medical center in August of 2019, and white-coat ceremonies are historically held in July. But his own history became secondary to that of the class of 2024.
"When you arrive at the KU School of Medicine, Monday of next week, you enter into the history books. You are making history because you are starting your medical education in the midst of a catastrophic, global, viral pandemic," he said. He asked himself whether parallels could be made to the medical class of 1918 or 1919, the years of the Spanish flu pandemic, only to set that comparison aside.
"In 1918 and 1919, our medical education system was not as well structured, not as demanding and not as well monitored as it is today," Ojo said. "Members of the class of 2024, you are starting your medical education to become physicians in the most complex, the most advanced and the most demanding healthcare system in the world."
Still a celebration
After the ceremony, a few medical students weighed in on the format. Via email, medical student Wolf Blaser shared: "While it is unfortunate we could not have an in-person ceremony, I felt welcomed into the school all the same. It was nice that our achievement was still celebrated, and it was particularly neat to view responses from family and friends in real time in the ‘chat' section on Zoom which would not have been possible at an in-person ceremony."
Fellow medical student Adrienne Esposito echoed Blaser's comments: "I️ do feel that the virtual ceremony still celebrated our entrance into medical school. Although it wasn't the ceremony anyone was anticipating when we were accepted into school, I think we all understand that this is the ‘new normal' for now, and we certainly appreciated the effort that was put into the virtual ceremony. In a way, it feels symbolic of our entrance into the COVID and post-COVID era of medicine."