The third time was the charm for the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Class of 2024.
After their first White Coat Ceremony was canceled in late summer 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the cancellation of a makeup ceremony in early 2021, students from the Class of 2024 finally got their official welcome to the medical profession on November 7 in a ceremony on campus.
At a program titled “A Celebration of Excellence: Looking back, looking ahead, and coming together,” the students who began their medical studies in 2020 gathered to celebrate the progress they’ve made as members of a historic class at the CU School of Medicine.
In lieu of the traditional white coats bestowed on students during their first year of medical school, the Class of 2024 received pins recognizing them as members of the CU Medical Alumni Association.
“The Class of 2024 has experienced as much, if not more, disruption than nearly any class in the history of the School of Medicine,” said Brian Dwinnell, MD, associate dean of student life. “Falling in the heart of a pandemic and a curricular reform created a perfect storm. Learning remotely and experiencing cancellations and uncertainty led to added stress.”
Their experiences entering medical school during the first year of the pandemic led some members of the Class of 2024 to refer to themselves as the “forgotten class,” Dwinnell said.
“I hope you all know that nothing could be further from the truth,” he told the students. “We have a tremendous amount of empathy for what you have endured and have never stopped thinking about how to support you and how to optimize your training.”
Jessica Lew, a fourth-year medical student and member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, welcomed the Class of 2024 and encouraged the students to lean on one another and on the members of the class above theirs when times get tough.
“Although I will never know entirely what it felt like to be in your shoes, I do understand some of the obstacles,” Lew said. “This journey may have challenged you thus far.”
Those obstacles include social isolation brought on by the pandemic, struggles with imposter syndrome, and anxiety about committing to the perfect specialty, Lew said.
“I bring these moments up because your friends in the class above you have been there, too,” she said. “We want to acknowledge the difficult times that aren’t always talked about. We see you, and we’re proud of your accomplishments.”
Acknowledging the unique position the Class of 2024 is in as the class that began its studies at the height of the pandemic, John J. Reilly Jr., MD, dean of the CU School of Medicine and vice chancellor of health affairs, congratulated the students on completing their clinical rotations in “an extraordinary time.”
“Already people in our society talk about things in terms of being pre-COVID and post-COVID, and I expect that will be true over the course of your careers,” Reilly said. “You’re to be congratulated on making it this far and knowing you have an important role to play in our society moving forward.”
‘Let’s talk about it.’
Speaking for the students at the ceremony was Gordon Matthewson, a member of the Class of 2024, who asked his classmates to think back to where they were in July 2020 and how they felt just before they joined the CU School of Medicine. Matthewson spent that summer rock climbing, he said, but he couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling about the path he was about to embark upon.
“I now know that this was the feeling of not knowing what lies before you, not knowing what will be expected of you, and if you’ll be able to meet those expectations — not knowing what you don’t know,” he said.
Beginning classes when COVID-19 was at its worst, and suffering the loss of the White Coat Ceremony and other first-year milestones, only made things worse, he said.
“I think our class has a lot to process,” Matthewson said. “We all have some element of sadness or bitterness about the timing of our education. So, let's come together. Let's talk about it. Let's all connect. Let's take some time to ourselves. Let’s think about who we are and what we want to do.”
The event’s keynote address came from Austin Butterfield, MD, assistant professor of child psychiatry. Butterfield told the students that grief is a natural part of being a doctor, and he encouraged the students to embrace grief — both their own and that of others — as they moved forward in their medical careers.
“Don’t protect yourself from unpleasant emotions, because they are core to being a physician,” Butterfield said. “They are core for how you're going to navigate supporting people who are in pain — who are navigating their own grief — while you are navigating yours.”
After crossing the stage one by one to receive their pins, the students said the words they had been waiting to speak for more than two years, reciting together the Class of 2024 Honor Statement.
“We commit to strengthening community within our class,” the statement read in part. “We will celebrate each other’s differences and diversity, and show each other patience, compassion, and understanding. We will encourage each other in our endeavors outside of medicine. We seek to be a friend, a touchstone, and a resource to every classmate, and to ensure that every voice from the Class of 2024 is heard.”