EDINBURG — Friends and family trickled into the Performing Arts Complex Auditorium on Saturday morning waiting for the 55 students to don their white coats in a ceremony symbolizing their journey as medical students beginning their first year at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine.

UTRGV’s School of Medicine held the white coat ceremony for its fourth class, who are slated to graduate in 2023. The School of Medicine first opened in 2016, and with this year’s cohort it will be the first time the university has four full classes in its medical school.

The previous year, the institution held its ceremony in Harlingen, which has a campus and clinics for medical practice, encompassing the university’s mission to be region-wide.

Dr. Leonel Vela, senior associate Dean for Education and Academic Affairs, welcomed major health professionals present at the ceremony, including School of Medicine Dean Dr. John Krouse.

Krouse gave an overview on the history of the white coat, and how it came to be associated with the medical profession.

Kevin Abraham tries on his white coat during University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine Class of 2023 White Coat Ceremony in the Performing Arts Center on the UTRGV campus on Saturday in Edinburg. Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com

He ended his speech with words of advice to the most recent class.

“Learn from each other, from nurses, from other healthcare professionals, but most importantly from your patients. Let them be your teachers, let them guide you, and let them show you the way,” Krouse said.

Krouse attended medical school in the 1980s and the white coat ceremony was not always around, he said.

The Arnold P. Gold Foundation began the White Coat Ceremony in 1993 to welcome medical students to the profession, according to a news release. Medical schools across the country started to follow this tradition.

David Lakey, vice chancellor for Health Affairs and chief medical officer for the UT System, acted as the keynote speaker for the morning.

“To be a healer isn’t just any other job, it is a commitment to a lifetime of service, learning and care,” Lakey said during a speech. “That is the deepest part of why we are here today, it is why your families are so proud of you… it’s why the title of doctor means something special in our society, and why it’s such an honor for me to be here today participating in the ceremony.”

Lakey advised them on taking care of themselves, and not to burn out or lose passion doing the job. He himself practiced in the clinical environment before moving onto work in a more administrative role to solve issues that he kept seeing everyday over time, he said.

Students in the program come from across the nation and decided to attend medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Samuel Alvarez, 25, is originally from Los Angeles, but came to attend medical school here from a “more impoverished” area in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

The UTRGV’s School of Medicine appealed to him, as part of its mission reminded him of the background in which he grew up.

He said he wanted to do something to combat poverty but also had interests in science. He said he wanted to break the stigma that “impoverished youth” have.

“UTRGV pretty much stands for that, that’s like all they’ve been built on is patient-centered medicine to underprivileged communities,” Alvarez said.

The area also felt familiar to him, he said.

“This place has a lot of palm trees, hispanic culture is very strong in this area so it felt right, like home from the very beginning,” Alvarez said.

Family and friends take photos with their phone during the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine Class of 2023 White Coat Ceremony in the Performing Arts Center on the UTRGV campus on Saturday, July 27, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

This year’s class has the largest number of Valley natives so far, with 24 students from the area, and 15 who graduated from UTRGV, according to a news release. These Valley students came from Brownsville to Roma, some obtained their degrees from UTRGV, while others left for university elsewhere before attending medical school in the region.

Samantha Guerra, a Weslaco native, was among the students from the Valley and received their higher education at UTRGV.

“It felt like a family, and it felt comfortable, I felt like all the faculty and all the staff were very welcoming, and they just opened their doors to us without any question, the fact that it’s such a small class size, I feel like it really allows for unity amongst our classmates,” Guerra said.

She said she feels nervous but “happy to be able to be a lifelong learner” and learning about the “community that we will be serving,” Guerra said.

Cohort members carried their white coat on stage and finally donned them as the health academic leadership helped them don it on as their names were called.

As audience members were told to hold their applause until the end, some friends and family snapped their fingers to show their enthusiasm and praise as they heard the name of the person they came to see walk the stage.

Ultimately, when all students were lined up after walking the stage, the audience welcomed them with a standing ovation. The medical students took the Hippocratic Oath, in which they recited professional values.