The Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2024 celebrated at their white coat ceremony, an annual rite of passage for students pursuing a career in medicine and health care. (All photos: David DelPoio)

‘This was our moment’ — medical students embrace non-traditional timing for long-standing white coat tradition

The Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2024 celebrated together at an in-person white coat ceremony that was held two years later than usual, but still felt timely.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Smiling and celebrating — a few even strutting — members of the Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2024 received their white medical coats at a special ceremony nearly two years after they started at Brown.

The white coat ceremony, formally known as the Ceremony of Commitment to Medicine, is typically held in the fall of the students’ first year of medical school. It’s a way to acknowledge the effort and dedication that brought the future physicians to medical school and to welcome them into the profession.

“When you don your white coat, it’s the symbolization of not just the educational part of medicine, but also the patient care aspect,” said Dr. Roxanne Vrees, associate dean for student affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School. “It all becomes real in that moment.”

But when members of the Class of 2024 arrived at Brown in Fall 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was at a peak. To protect health and adhere to state and campus safety protocols, most classes and school events were held virtually. While medical students did receive a white doctor’s coat, their celebration took place online and mostly individually. It wasn’t until their second year that the public health situation improved to the point that they were able to gather in larger groups. Meanwhile, school leaders heard from students that it was important for this class to have their own in-person celebration when conditions allowed.

“It was a no-brainer that we should do this for the students,” Vrees said.

The spring celebration, held on Saturday, April 30, and hosted by the Brown Medical Alumni Association, took place outdoors under a festively decorated tent two days before students started the clinical portion of their training — the second half of the medical school experience, during which they spend significant amounts of time in the hospitals and around patients, wearing their white coats.

Each student was called up on stage and formally coated by the new dean of the medical school, Dr. Mukesh K. Jain. Several members of this year’s class chose to strike a pose when donning their jacket. The crowd was boisterous, cheering loudly and clapping enthusiastically as their classmates’ names were called.

Over the past two years of medical school, this group had the chance to develop a significant sense of camaraderie, said Christopher Bayston, a member of the Class of 2024. Bayston said that while they appreciated the creative format of the virtual white coat ceremony, they were grateful for the chance to celebrate in-person with family members and classmates.

“For some celebrations that have been delayed, it kind of feels a little too late,” Bayston said. “But for this white coat ceremony, I really appreciated the opportunity — and I think a lot of other students did, too. It gave us a chance to celebrate ourselves. We haven’t had a lot of these special moments as a class, so this was our moment.”

Bayston noted the auspicious timing of the event. “To be together in-person, after studying for our exams, and to look in each other’s faces before we go out into the clinical environment, was really meaningful.”

Idowu Olugbade, another member of the class, agreed that the timing worked in the students’ favor — although she hadn’t always felt that way. When Olugbade first heard about the in-person white coat ceremony, she said it felt a bit redundant; “the moment had been lost,” she said. She even considered skipping the event. But then came the intense study period, and a grueling exam, and Olugbade realized that she felt eager to celebrate the milestone with the rest of her class and commemorate what they’d already experienced together.

“This was a really nice way to end the preclinical years and to look ahead to what’s next,” Olugbade said. “Students were cheering each other on, validating our hard work over the past two years. It was definitely an emotional moment.”

Olugbade talked about how she’d developed relationships with classmates as well as medical school faculty and deans, and it was fun and freeing to finally have the chance to interact with them in a relaxed and social way.

“With my sister there and some of my family watching online, I got to meet the parents and family members of my classmates and celebrate together with other students,” she said. “Being together felt like being part of this big family — this medical school family.”