By Landon Hall
Second-year medical student Peter Cleary might have said it best: “It feels important that we’re all here together.”
The Keck School of Medicine of USC held White Coat ceremonies for the Classes of 2024 and 2025 on successive days, Aug. 5 and 6. They did feel important — not to mention joyous to watch — as hundreds of students celebrated with family and friends at a tradition that could not be held last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s great to officially welcome you to the Keck School of Medicine, and I’m really excited to be able to greet you in person,” said Steven Shapiro, MD, Interim Dean of the school and senior vice president for health affairs at USC. “The past year has been challenging. As we sit here today still masked up, it’s worth noting some of the experiences we’ve had from COVID and how that will inform us as we move forward as a field.”
The Class of ’24 already has a year of med school completed. Their White Coat ceremony was held Thursday, while the Class of ’25 gathered Friday. With the start of the academic year approaching, one by one the MD degree candidates ascended the stage to be “coated” by Ron Ben-Ari, MD, Associate Dean for Curriculum and Tanisha N. Price-Johnson, PhD, Associate Dean for Student Affairs. Then they paused briefly for a photo, to loud applause from loved ones. In all, 371 students participated in the two ceremonies, and about 2,400 others attended in person (about 4,000 remotely), shielded from the late-afternoon sun by white tents.
“I feel like I’ve lived this moment in my head so many times, and to feel the sensation of being here, with the sun setting on the grass, it’s honestly better than I could have imagined. It’s a dream come true,” said Isaiah Eruaga, a first-year who was joined by more than a dozen family members from his hometown of Palmdale.
The events were streamed live on YouTube. Here’s Thursday’s:
And here’s a gallery of more photos.
People came from all over the country, and many other countries, to attend the events. Raquel Arias, MD, Associate Dean for Admissions, said there are 32 languages spoken in the Class of ’24, and 21 languages in the Class of ’25. All over the Broad Lawn there were scenes and tokens of immense pride: A student accepting a brilliant bouquet of not one dozen, but two dozen cardinal-and-gold roses; a father holding up his phone to record his daughter as she walked the stage, and continuing to record until she sat down again.
For many second-years, the event was the first time they were able to see their classmates up close. A year ago Carmen Toomer drove from her home in Atlanta with her fraternal twin sister Emily and two other friends to Los Angeles. On this day her family was with her to enjoy the moment. “I feel it’s long overdue,” Toomer said. “I’m happy we got to do it in person.”
Cleary, who lives near Chicago, said he didn’t want his family to come, still concerned about traveling during a surge in coronavirus cases. He made plans to join some classmates for dinner. “I think this day was great,” he said. “It was a wonderful reunion … or union. Seeing faces I only know online.”
“It’s also kind of bittersweet,” he added, recalling the challenges of 2020-21. “It’s been a weird year. There was a lot of loss. But we made it through last year together, and we’ll make it through this year together.”
Shapiro said that going from the first COVID case to the implementation of effective vaccines within a year “is unprecedented,” but he noted that the pandemic had “stripped away any facade of health equity.” He told the students that because of the therapies and cures that will be developed during their careers, “you’ll be able to do more for your patients than the rest of all doctors in history combined.”
“So it really is a remarkable time to learn medicine and become a doctor,” he added. “This won’t solve the health inequity issue, however. Yet as medical students at USC in the most diverse city on the planet, caring for the most vulnerable patients, you can be part of our mission to make L.A. the place for health-care equity and reduce all health-care disparities.”
A major theme, across the two days, was putting patients first. Part of the Keck Oath, recited by all the students at the end of the proceeding, reads: “I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not for the world to know.” The theme was evident in keynote addresses by Kevin G. Phung, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and clerkship director; and Seth Politano, DO, clinical associate professor of medicine.
“As you wear your white coat for the first time, I invite you to reflect upon all it took for you to get here,” Politano told the first-years on Friday. “Take that same dedication and commitment and apply it toward the next four years and beyond. Reflect on all those who have guided and supported you on your journey so far, and now project that same compassion toward those you will help medically and personally, for the rest of your lives. In addition to your medical expertise you will help them by holding their hand, explaining their disease, and alleviating their suffering.”