Duke Physician Assistant Program Eyes Return to Normalcy With White Coat Ceremony

By Rhiannon Giles



Small group room after ceremoney

Each August, a new class joins the Duke Physician Assistant (PA) Program for an orientation week that follows a similar flow from year to year.  

The first day in the classroom, students choose the seat that will likely be theirs for the rest of the year. They spend the morning getting to know one another and telling the rest of the students, faculty, and staff a fun fact about themselves in the welcoming presentation. They get lost on the way to the restroom, scout out potential study spots, and begin to discover all Durham has to offer.

Traditionally, on Friday of orientation week, students don their white coats for the first time.

The pandemic disrupted every facet of education, and the structure of that first, nervous week was no exception.  

In 2020 the in-person White Coat Ceremony was scrapped completely in favor of a virtual ceremony and students in living rooms and bedrooms shrugging themselves into their own white coats.  

This year, school began in flux as Covid-19 numbers fell with increased vaccination and then rose dramatically as the Delta variant took hold. Mask mandates were lifted and reinstated in the days before the class of 2023 walked inside 800 S Duke St for the first time.

In the end, Duke PA leadership opted against using the main classroom for 90 students, instead breaking into small groups.  

Still, with light on the horizon, the White Coat Ceremony was postponed, rather than canceled or moved to Zoom.  

Group of students outside after white coat ceremony

Delayed normalcy

On November 5th, the class of 2023 came together in the classroom with white coats draped over arms  and masks sporting an "I [heart] PA" logo.

Program Director Jacqueline S. Barnett, DHSc, MHS, PA-C spoke first, saying, “I’m very honored to be standing here in front of you all in the physical classroom space with students and colleagues to celebrate this ceremony. As many of you know we are just returning to this classroom within the past couple of weeks after not being in here since March 2020. So, it is really, really a great thrill, I can say, to be back in this space and feel this community.”

Of the white coat itself, Assistant Professor Annamarie Streilein, MHS, PA-C said, “Our best hope is that you will use your white coat up to its highest advantage in your role as student physician assistants; to signify your desire to become competent and knowledgeable, the sincerity of your intention to be of help and your trustworthiness as part of the medical team. Changing the field of medicine is your responsibility if you have a white coat. The white coat gives you the ability to make the world better.”

Parents and loved ones then watched a live stream as each student was called to the front of the classroom where their advisor waited to welcome them into their new white coat and all the symbolism that comes with it.

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