In a typical academic year at Weill Cornell Medical College, the annual White Coat Ceremony symbolically marks the launch of the incoming class’s journey into medicine. First-year students gather during their first week on campus for the tradition, which includes presentation of a short white coat and stethoscope to each of them by a member of the faculty. But for the Class of 2024, their first year of medical school was anything but typical.
With the country in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccines still on the horizon, instruction for the incoming class took place online for the Fall 2020 semester. A virtual matriculation ceremony kicked off an unusual academic year and honored the students’ commitment to becoming physicians, scientists and leaders in health care, and offered the chance to reflect on this new chapter of their lives, happening at such a historic time.
On Sept. 24, after a year highlighted by so many virtual events, the Class of 2024 finally celebrated their medical school journey with their own White Coat Ceremony—hosted in person. They were joined by 11 faculty members, who helped students don their short white coats, on The Starr Foundation-Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center Terrace in the Belfer Research Building for an outdoor ceremony while their family and friends watched the livestreamed event at home.
“Unlike at traditional white coat ceremonies, we are inducting you into your chosen career path when you’re already well on your way,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “Despite the unconventional start to your medical school studies, you are receiving the best training possible from leading experts in their field. You will leave Weill Cornell well prepared to take on the health care challenges we face today and will make an impact. Your experience— though different from others before or after you—may even prove to be a strength.”
Indeed, the students found unique and meaningful ways to not only engage with each other but also with the greater community. They participated in summer research projects, volunteered with institutional organizations such as the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights and got involved with community vaccination programs. Their interests and passions reflect their range of backgrounds and experiences: women comprise nearly half of the class, 29 percent are from underrepresented groups in medicine and 22 percent are first-generation college students.
“Due to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of your medical school career was quite different than what you may have imagined,” said Dr. Yoon Kang, senior associate dean for education at Weill Cornell Medicine. “As first-year medical students during an extraordinary time in the nation’s social and political history, you are in a unique position to reflect on the struggles we have faced—the challenges in health care delivery, health disparities, social and racial injustice, and economic hardships—and use these transformative experiences to better inform the care you will provide your patients in the future.”
During her keynote speech, Dr. Mary E. Choi encouraged students to take great care in selecting a specialty, sharing her own experiences and noting that “it’s one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in medical school, and one that will impact your life in many different ways.”
“Each of you will have your own reasons for the direction you choose to take, and each of those reasons will be perfect for you,” said Dr. Choi, a professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension at Weill Cornell Medicine and a distinguished physician-scientist. “Still, no matter what decision you make, I guarantee there will be unexpected twists and turns in your career that draw on your expertise and test it to the limits. Just consider all that we have learned with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For the Weill Cornell Medical College Class of 2024, the challenges of the past year have offered opportunities to pursue their passions, connect with their peers and their communities in distinctive ways, and find greater meaning in their chosen field of medicine. These four students shared their experiences.