Medical Class of 2025 White Coat Ceremony: A Silver Lining Amidst the Pandemic

October 7, 2021 by Jennifer Nachbur & Michelle Bookless

The UVM Larner College of Medicine held a traditional White Coat Ceremony on Friday, October 8. in UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel, for the 124 students in the medical Class of 2025.

UVM Larner College of Medicine Class of 2025 medical students pose outside of Ira Allen Chapel wearing their new white coats. [Photo by Andy Duback]

On Friday, October 8, the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine hosted its annual White Coat Ceremony for the medical student Class of 2025. After last year's altered format - largely virtual and with students putting their white coats on themselves - ongoing research on masking and the creation of effective vaccines allowed for a more traditional ceremony this year - with students able to invite two guests to attend the event in UVM's Ira Allen Chapel.

Reminiscent of past ceremonies, a few alterations hinted at ongoing pandemic precautions - every window in the Chapel remained open for airflow throughout the ceremony, all individuals in the Chapel were fully masked, per UVM policy, with Ceremony speakers taking off their masks only briefly during their remarks, and students received congratulatory "fist-bumps" from leaders instead of handshakes as they walked off the stage with their new white coats.

The ceremony opened with a welcome from Larner College of Medicine Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education Christa Zehle, M.D., followed by remarks from Larner College of Medicine Dean Richard L. Page, M.D. 

"You will find that when you wear a white coat, you feel different, and you are treated differently," Page told the students, adding, "So, how should we respond to the respect that the white coat affords? We must all earn the right to wear it. When we put it on either literally or figuratively, we must live up to the promise it provides."

Page's remarks were followed by those from UVM Medical Center President and Chief Operating Officer and College alum Stephen Leffler, M.D.'90, who spoke to the students' ability to adapt to change - evidenced by their ability to apply for, interview, and start medical school during a pandemic.

"You are a class that truly understands change; you've had to be nimble to adapt to the changes brought on by a once-in-a-century pandemic," he said. "The fact that you've been able to navigate your way here gives me great confidence that you will be able to successfully manage the challenges of the rapidly changing health care that lies ahead."

During the Humanism in Medicine Keynote Address, Devika Singh, M.D., associate professor of medicine, infectious disease specialist and 2021 Faculty Recipient of the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, implored the students to figuratively "take down their masks" throughout their careers to show humanism and compassion in their work. She also encouraged the students to advocate for and demand social change. 

"Our world is quite literally relying on young people," said Singh. "Students - please stand up and stomp for change...When systems and structures sluggishly remain in place despite your every level of agitation, then I want you to push harder." 

Additional remarks were delivered by Alumni Association President Omar Khan, M.D.'03, who, along with Interim Associate Dean for Admissions Nathalie Feldman, M.D., and Interim Assistant Dean for Students Mariah McNamara, M.D., M.P.H., Interim Assistant Dean for Students Justin DeAngelis, M.D., Connecticut Campus Assistant Dean for Students Ellen Kulaga, M.D., Interim Associate Dean for Students Lee Rosen, Ph.D., and Class of 2023 medical students Negar Esfandiari and Keira Goodell then participated in the cloaking portion of the ceremony.

Learn more about few of the 124 first-year medical students who received their white coats during the ceremony below.

Watch the full video of the White Coat Ceremony.
View the White Coat Ceremony program.
Watch a WCAX interview and story about the ceremony.
Watch coverage of the event by NBC5.

First-Year Medical Students Bring Rich Backgrounds to Medical Journey

Among the 124 first-year medical students who received their first white coat on October 8 were a former investment banker, Baltimore, Md., teacher, global health equity advocate, and a community college professor.

Elizabeth "Liz" Kelley, of Shoreham, Vt., had a career in investment banking prior to pivoting to medicine. Kelley, who gained respect for the field as a patient with multiple sports injuries and sister of a Larner alum now specializing in gynecologic oncology, admits she "wanted to pursue a career that focused on helping others." She believes that in "receiving the white coat, there comes a sense of responsibility to our future patients – that we are committed to learning how to provide the best care to all people, and that we recognize it is a privilege to care for others."

Jasmine Bazinet-Phillips was born and raised in Baltimore City, Md., but enjoyed skiing in Vermont’s Mad River Valley growing up. She served as a Teach for America educator in her hometown following graduation from Colby College and was inspired by her mother – a longstanding Baltimore City public school teacher and former PeaceCorps volunteer – who demonstrated the value of commitment and duty to students and families. “In the classroom, the inequality I saw seemed almost insurmountable,” says Bazinet-Phillips. “Many of my students and families did not have access to adequate healthcare or nutrition, which directly interfered with learning,” she adds. Fueled by this experience, she decided to pursue medicine.

Gabriela Sarriera-Valentin is a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the youngest of six children, and a UVM undergraduate alum. She says she “was always intrigued by the idea of studying medicine,” but spent time doing advocacy and educational work in Rwanda with a pediatrician and current vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, in Boston with Partners In Health, and volunteering at a queer bookstore before returning to Vermont and UVM for medical school.

Justin Henningsen is a scientist and mandolin player originally from Brookings, S.D. About four years ago, he moved to Worcester, Vt. with his wife and children. Despite majoring in biology at Northern Arizona University and earning a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and doing postdoctoral research at Texas A&M, he says “I didn’t think that medicine was the right field for me.” Over time, he admits, “helping others in a direct way and building community have both become much more important to me.” Experiences teaching biology and anatomy & physiology classes at the Community College of Vermont and working part-time at his local hospital and shadowing physicians “convinced me that medicine was for me,” he says.

At the end of the ceremony, members of the medical Class of 2025 were led by Larner Dean Page in reciting “The Oath,” an adapted version of the Oath of Lasagna of 1964.

Each student's white coat had a Humanism in Medicine lapel pin provided by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, a keepsake copy of The Oath provided by the UVM Office of Primary Care, and a White Coat Note, a message of encouragement for each medical student written by a Larner College of Medicine alum, tucked into the pocket.

About the White Coat Ceremony
Initiated on August 20, 1993 at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, this annual ceremony or a similar rite now takes place for first-year medical students at about 90 percent of schools of medicine and osteopathy in the United States, and is supported by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. According to the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, the White Coat Ceremony helps establish a psychological contract for the practice of medicine. Physicians dressed in black until the late 19th century, due to the association of black attire as formal. Physicians adopted the white coat as a symbol of purity at the beginning of the 20th century.

(Source: Mark Hochberg, M.D., “The Doctor's White Coat—an Historical Perspective,” American Medical Association Journal of Ethic’s Virtual Mentor website, April 2007)