Kyle Benkel traded his UCF football jersey for a white coat – even though his new uniform, recognizing him as a physician-in-training, came in a plastic bag instead of a ceremony.
Benkel was one of 120 new College of Medicine students who began training this fall at a time dramatically changed by COVID-19. There was no White Coat Ceremony with each student coated in front of family and friends. Instead, this year’s event was a drive-through. Student Affairs leaders and staff put backpacks containing supplies and a white coat into each student’s car trunk.
“Wow, it’s like my new jersey!” Benkel said as he took a brand-new white coat out of its packaging and held it up to his chest. A wide receiver on the team that beat Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl, Benkel was also an honors graduate of UCF’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences who decided to enter medicine after seeing how physicians healed him twice from football injuries when he was a teen.
“It means the world to me to be able to come to UCF and study medicine,” he said. “I learned a lot of different things from football – and a lot of it is overcoming adversity. So, whenever I’m faced with a challenge, I know that I can conquer it.”
One of those challenges is the physical distancing required during the pandemic. Some students said they were saddened they couldn’t participate in the traditional White Coat Ceremony and meet new classmates in person. But several said the reality of COVID-19 had strengthened their passion for medicine.
“This pandemic really emphasizes the important role a physician plays, and it has made my passion stronger,” said Hannah Sage, a UCF graduate who had placed third in the 2018 National Jeopardy College Challenge before coming to medical school. “It makes me want to be able to help. I’m so close, but I still can’t. So I’m excited to learn what I can and make my impact in a couple years.”
At each year’s White Coat Ceremony, new medical students participate in their first class – The Good Doctor, a UCF Tradition. There, I ask them to imagine the person they love most in the world and then describe the traits they want their beloved person’s physician to have. As students list the characteristics, I write their words on a blackboard that is displayed all year in the College of Medicine rotunda.
This year, The Good Doctor lesson was also virtual. Students had each emailed in 10 to 15 words, and we included the most chosen characteristics – including compassionate, humble, knowledgeable, ethical, reliable, trustworthy, caring, honest, and respectful. These words become the students’ contract with their faculty, their community, and me.
The Class of 2024 is UCF’s 12th class and includes 58 women and 62 men. Its members had an average college GPA of 3.81 and 513 score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The class includes two military veterans and graduates from Brown, Duke, Emory, Florida State, Notre Dame, Rollins College, Stanford, University of Florida, University of Miami, and University of South Florida. Sixteen are UCF alumnae, and 15 were the first college graduates in their families.
Our students enter medicine at an unsettling time. We’re fighting a pandemic and racial injustice. As I told them during our virtual White Coat Ceremony, this is a time for them to rise to the occasion – through their compassion, humility, and professionalism.