Brown’s new medical students don their white coats, taking their places in history

As the University commemorates 50 years of medical education at Brown, members of the Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2026 celebrated a traditional rite of passage at this year’s white coat ceremony.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — While classes started at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School in August, a traditional rite of passage on the first weekend in October marked a kickoff to the medical school journeys of 144 future physicians.

The school’s white coat ceremony, formally known as the Ceremony of Commitment to Medicine, is a way to acknowledge the dedication that brought Brown’s newest medical students to Providence and to welcome them to the profession. It is a tradition in which students are “coated” by the dean, with coats donated by the Brown Medical Alumni Association. And because almost no one makes it to medical school without support from a larger community, the ceremony is a chance to express gratitude for students’ family members and others who helped them get to this point, and to acknowledge the path that lies ahead.

Dr. Roxanne Vrees, associate dean for student affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School, said the donning of the white coat reminds students that all the study and practice they do is in service of their future patients. There are many significant moments in medical school, but she said that this one, celebrated just as the students are about to start interacting with standardized patients, holds particularly special meaning.

“It all becomes real in that moment,” said Vrees, who earned a bachelor’s degree and M.D. from Brown and cherishes the memories of her own white coat celebration in 2000. “It means so much not only to the students, but also to the family and other folks who are there for them.”

John Johnson, a member of the medical school’s Class of 2023, served as student speaker for the 24th annual ceremony, held on Saturday, Oct. 1. He recalled his white coat ceremony from three years ago, which he said felt like an ending as well as a beginning.

“Before you get into medical school, all you think about is getting into medical school,” Johnson said. “So when you actually do, you feel like you made it. The ceremony reminds you that you’re just at the beginning of another journey — you made it to the top of one mountain, but you realize that another one lies ahead.”

An emphasis on human-focused medicine

The Warren Alpert Medical School hosted its first white coat ceremony in 2000, adapting an idea from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, which had instituted the tradition as a way to emphasize humanism in medicine at the outset of medical education. That inaugural year at Brown, the celebration honored all four years of medical school classes; now, it’s traditionally held early in the first year.

Humanism has been a core value of Brown’s approach since it began training physicians 50 years ago, and the school has found ways to make the white coat ceremony uniquely its own. The first event was thoughtfully designed by a committee of students from each class, and included remarks from a fourth-year student (a more experienced peer) as well as a faculty member.

Each year since, the student speaker has been selected by their classmates as someone who most personifies the white coat. Johnson, who came to Brown through the medical school’s early identification program with Tougaloo College, told the new students that the white coat connects them to a history and a profession that transcends their personal experiences — and that includes everything from injustices to world-changing breakthroughs, life-saving innovations and empathetic care.

“The history of medicine is complex, and these complexities are woven into the white coat we all wear,” Johnson said. “As you come up today to receive yours, take great pride and responsibility in knowing that while history determines what the white coat means up to this point, the future of what it means depends on you.”

Faculty speaker Dr. Liza Aguiar, an assistant professor of surgery and pediatrics, reiterated Johnson’s point about the complex meaning the white coat has for patients. A pediatric urologist with Brown Urology, Aguiar said that white coats remind some patients of their fears and vulnerabilities, while to others the coat represents safety and healing.

“Acknowledging how multi-faceted a patient-physician relationship can be is the first step to really connecting with patients and understanding them,” Aguiar said, noting that understanding underpins better care.

Aguiar is herself part of a through-line of medical education at Brown. A Brown undergraduate program alumna who participated in the Program in Liberal Medical Education, she earned her M.D. from the Warren Alpert Medical School in 2008 and then completed her residency in Rhode Island. She’s been actively involved with Brown since graduation, as faculty and now as an assistant dean for PLME.

Before the event, Aguiar shared that the most memorable part of her own white coat ceremony was how many people showed up for her class, which was particularly large.

“There was just this overwhelming feeling of support,” Aguiar said. “It was so special to see parents and people from different backgrounds, who all knew what it took to get a student from high school to college to medical school, all coming together. It was a wonderful to be able to celebrate.”

During this year’s celebration, the students processed across a stage on Pembroke Field to be coated by Dr. Mukesh Jain, dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown. Families and friends cheered enthusiastically for every one of them. The event was held under a large tent, with giant, colorful balloons and student attendees dressed in festive attire. On each white coat gleamed a gold pin commemorating the medical school’s fiftieth anniversary.

Putting the events of the day in context, Jain remarked that the students were joining the institution at a milestone moment in its history, as Brown celebrates 50 years of medical education, innovation and impact.

“I am confident,” Jain said, “that efforts that you will put forth both collectively and individually throughout medical school will provide significant contributions that will be remembered in our next 50 years.”