Valedictorians, dean's list members, Honors College students, an NCAA Division I scholar-athlete, and the president of a biological honor society are among the members of the incoming Class of ‘24 at the UNLV School of Medicine.
The more you learn about the students who attend the medical school that opened in 2017, the more you appreciate just how unique they are. From all four classes, you hear that they believe there is a new health care world to be built, but that it will not come to pass without vision, commitment, passion, and respect for the human personality and frailties of people.
On a recent day, Cynthia Lee, Genesis Krisel Leon, Kim Inciong, Shelby Thomas and Ryland McDermott, who with their class of 60 started their medical school journey July 13, turned up in the atrium of a building on the Shadow Lane campus. Masked and practicing at least six feet of social distancing in this age of COVID-19, they were each there to pick up supplies that included an iPad, backpack, stethoscope, T-shirt, and whiteboard markers.
They also were happy to share what they’re looking forward to, and what got them to this time and place.
White Coat ceremony
Make no mistake about it: When it comes to upcoming events at the medical school, they say that the Sept. 4 White Coat ceremony — the event that is now seen as a rite of passage for new medical students — is a function in which they will relish playing a role. During the ceremony, each student is presented with a white coat, symbolizing their entrance into the medical profession.
The UNLV ritual includes speakers and a student-written oath — every year the new class of medical students writes its own — that is recited in front of family members, school leadership, and their peers to acknowledge their central obligation for caring for patients.
“I think the White Coat ceremony, which is a kind of initiation into medical school, makes everything more real,” said Kim Inciong, a valedictorian at Liberty High School in Henderson who’s regularly been on the UNLV Honors College dean’s List. She also has a first-degree black belt in karate. “When you’re just taking classes, it can’t be as real as when you put that coat on. It’s special to anyone on the journey to becoming a doctor. This is something we’ve waited for.”
Ann Diggins, the school of medicine’s director of student affairs and career services, said the Sept. 4 date has been selected, but COVID-19 is making it hard to plan for the ceremony. If the weather is good, she says it will be held outside on the main UNLV campus. Bad weather would probably mean it would be held inside the Cox Pavilion. The pandemic could mean guests have to be limited because of social distancing, she said. No time has been set for the event.
For the first time, the medical school is involving the community in the ceremony through its White Coat Campaign 2020. Even though the ceremony itself will be largely limited to families because of COVID-19, the community can show its support by donating to the campaign. Funds raised will purchase the 60 white coats as well as fund the Class of 2024 scholarship that will be distributed to students in the four medical school classes that follow.
“Students learn about the importance of philanthropy by watching their scholarship work for other students like themselves,” noted medical school Dean Mark Kahn. “Then, after they graduate and are practicing medicine, they will be asked annually to continue to support the Class of 2024 scholarship, eventually endowing it so it will be available in perpetuity.”
Cynthia Lee, a Rancho High School graduate who went on to a near-perfect academic record at UNR as well as the presidency of a biological honor society at the school, said a scholarship she received from the medical school is helping her immensely.
“It helps relieve pressure,” Lee said. In the 2008 Great Recession, she said her parents, dad, a mortgage broker, and mom, a jeweler, both lost their jobs and their Summerlin home. “I have learned from them you have to keep fighting,” she said.
To Ryland McDermott, an honor student at Henderson’s Coronado High School who became an NCAA Division I scholar-athlete in tennis at Idaho’s Boise State University (one A- in an otherwise all-A pre-med average), the White Coat ceremony means “you're on your way to making your whole career about helping people. It’s a super big deal.”
For Shelby Thomas, a former valedictorian at Coronado who went on to co-found Planned Parenthood Generation Action at Vassar College, the ceremony “symbolizes joining the medical community — swearing an oath where you promise to yourself, to colleagues, and future patients that you will do the very best you can.”
Genesis Krisel Leon, a dean’s list student in the UNLV Honors College and former valedictorian at Centennial High school, said she never forgets that her immigrant parents couldn’t afford health insurance as she grew up. She said she’s excited her family will see her in the White Coat ceremony “starting a new path, taking a step....where I will commit to helping all patients.”
She doesn’t forget how difficult life can be right now, volunteering at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission to feed the homeless and those struggling with addiction. “While I understand that one Latina from Las Vegas may not be able to change the world, I believe that as a physician, I will be able to positively impact the individual worlds of all patients and that of their families.”