Celebrating the start of their medical education, students reflect on their motivations for entering the field and pledge to put their patients first.
August 28, 2023 - By Anna Marie Yanny
At the white coat ceremony for incoming Stanford Medicine students, María Valentina Suárez-Nieto walked carefully to the stage and thanked her family in Spanish for their sacrifices, her voice cracking with emotion: “Gracias por todos sus sacrificios...muchas gracias,” she said.
Growing up in Villavicencio, Colombia, Suárez-Nieto lived far from a large hospital and was grateful to neighbors who treated her childhood injuries with home remedies. As a young child, she immigrated to the U.S. with her mother because of a war near her hometown. She translated and interpreted for her mom during the immigration process and at doctor’s appointments.
“I’ve always been my mom’s interpreter, her advocate in health care settings,” Suárez-Nieto said. She hopes her upbringing in Colombia will make her a more culturally competent doctor. “I’m really passionate about improving quality of care for non-English speakers and immigrant communities.”
Two Aug. 25 ceremonies marked the beginning of medical studies for 118 students — one for those starting their journey toward a medical degree, the other for those in the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program.
After speakers welcomed the classes at each ceremony, the future physicians and PAs put on, for the first time, white coats embroidered with their names.
Donning a new ‘professional identity’
At the master’s in physician assistant studies ceremony, 29 incoming students were given a newly minted “professional identity.”
Charles Prober, MD, professor of pediatrics and founding executive director of the Stanford Center for Health Education, recited several quotes about the significance of the white coat.
“As you put on this white coat, remember that it’s not just the garment; it’s a symbol of empathy, dedication and the privilege to heal,” he said.
PA student Katie Kohlsaat can empathize with pediatric cardiology patients more than most future clinicians. She was born with a congenital heart defect and underwent heart surgeries as a child.
“I was that kid who loved to watch the ultrasound of my heart and see if I could figure out the different pieces of my heart and where everything fit,” she said.
Before she arrived at Stanford, she worked at Boston Children’s Hospital. One day, a mother of a baby who recently underwent heart surgery noticed a scar Kohlsaat’s chest.
“I was really proud to tell her that I had a surgery similar to her daughter’s,” Kohlsaat recalled. “I think it showed her that there is a life for her daughter outside of this hospital.”
‘We are always here for you’
At the MD ceremony, Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the school of medicine, emphasized the lifelong bond between the incoming students and Stanford Medicine: “We are always here for you …to support you and help you in any way we can.”
Kamsi Nwangwu, president of the Stanford Medical Student Association, urged the incoming students not to compare themselves with their classmates.
“Maybe you hold an underrepresented identity, not a standard path. Maybe you have a disability, visible or not. Not a standard path,” he said, and recalled his own insecurities when he began medical school. “There is no one more deserving of your kindness than yourself.”
As the students walked onto the stage in their new coats, each thanked the people who helped them get there. One student lauded family near and far, saying “Everything I am is yours.” Another pressed through tears to share how her mother’s unconditional love supported her: “I want to make everyone feel that love. And that’s why I’m here.” Some remarks were lighter — one student thanked his girlfriend’s cat; another thanked her brother for “funding this endeavor.”
Incoming MD student Fikunwa Kolawole thanked his family back in Lagos, Nigeria, where he lived until high school.
When he enrolled at Howard University, he said the community helped him during his transition to the U.S.
“Coming to this new society, you’re playing by a different rulebook. It was nice to get some people to essentially tell me what the rules were,” Kolawole said.
As Kolawole begins his MD studies, he’s wrapping up a mechanical engineering PhD at Stanford. For the past few years, he worked with department’s Summer First program, an eight-week campus immersion for incoming engineering students from groups that are underrepresented in the field. He hopes to mentor students as part of Stanford Medicine’s equity and inclusion initiatives.
Kolawole wants to be a physician-scientist, a dream he’s excited to pursue at Stanford. “Stanford really puts their money where their mouth is with regards to interdisciplinary work,” he said.
The sky turned to golden hour as Minor led the students in reciting the Stanford Affirmation: “I pledge to devote my life to the service of humanity. The care of my patients will be my first consideration,” they said in unison.
Afterward, students flooded out of the ceremonies, giggling and nervous with delight. They start classes this week.
About Stanford Medicine
Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.