Clad in White, a Collective Rite: Nursing Holds First White Coat Ceremony

Keep your collar smartly starched. Keep your pockets full of necessaries, like bandages, tissues and stickers. And always remember to keep your white coat’s buttons undone.

That was the advice at the University of Virginia School of Nursing’s first-ever “White Coat Ceremony,” held Saturday afternoon in McLeod Hall’s Fenwick Auditorium, an event that gathered more than 350 students, their parents and professors during a festive, if blustery, Family Weekend.

The occasion – a ritual reserved for medical students over roughly the past two decades – was among 100 such ceremonies that took place in nursing schools across the country, thanks to coordinated support and funding from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Though U.Va.’s Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing class of 2017 is the first cohort to enjoy the White Coat Ceremony, it will be an annual tradition for second-year students at the school from this year forward.

Sharing the white coat with medical students “plays down old hierarchies,” noted the ceremony’s featured speaker, Marcia Day Childress, associate professor at U.Va. School of Medicine and director of that school’s humanities program at the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities. “It makes us, more than ever, colleagues. Now, as nursing and medical students, we wear it together.”

Childress – noting the white coat’s universal meaning of help and relief – advised students to consider the coat as a metaphor of their manner of care, urging them to “take it seriously, remembering that you’re part of a group that is curious of, and fiercely protective of, patients.”

“Leave your coat unbuttoned to get that rich mix of giving and receiving,” she said, “and consider how leaving your coat unbuttoned can open you up to a patient’s secrets, society’s cruel injustices, colleagues’ confidences – even your own grief and growth.”

“You and your coat will grow into each other,” she added. “Put on the coat, softly crease the collar, stuff the pockets, keep it unbuttoned and be a great nurse.”

During the ceremony, the School of Nursing’s 89 second-year students processed with their white coats draped over their left arms before crossing the stage to don the garment with help from associate nursing professor Randy Jones. Once the group was fully clad in white, students together repeated “The Next Generation of U.Va. Nursing,” a student-written pledge, before the auditorium rang out with applause from family members.

“This is a pivotal moment for our 89 second-year students,” said Dorrie K. Fontaine, Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professor of Nursing and the school’s dean since 2008. But while “a symbol of our compassion and our care,” Fontaine also noted that “as with much in life, it’s what’s inside – compassion, engagement and respectfulness – that really counts.”

Care, question and advocate for your patients, Fontaine urged the students. “That’s what Virginia nurses do,” she added. “You’re joining the best profession there is. We’re counting on you – and we’re so very proud of you.”

Media Contact

Christine Phelan Kueter

School of Nursing