A Coat, a Code, and a Commitment to Service

September 26, 2011
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Margaret Plack, P.T., Ed.D., interim senior associate dean for the Health Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), says her passion for education is attributable in part to her father, who loved the dictionary. So it was a bit of a tribute to him that she kicked off this year’s Health Sciences Convocation and White Coat Ceremony with a definition.

“A ‘convocation’ is when people are formerly assembled for a special purpose,” she told members of the newest class of the Health Sciences programs who packed a Ross Hall auditorium, Sept. 16, along with their family, friends, and many of their current and future professors to partake in a longstanding tradition of the health professions.

The class — which includes students enrolled in the Physician Assistant, Physical Therapy, and Pharmacogenomics programs, among others — also comprises about 500 students across the country who are enrolled in one of the schools’ many esteemed distance learning programs.

This particular convocation, continued Plack, had three special purposes. First, it welcomed a new class of students to an “exciting academic year” and, more broadly, marked the beginning of their professional studies.

Next, the ceremony celebrated the students’ commitment to patient care — a commitment reflected in their new white coats, which are “an outward symbol of a lifetime call to service for all of your patients,” Plack reminded.

Lastly, it was a celebration of one of SMHS’s core values: service. “I have never been in a place that is so committed to service and helping one another,” she said.

That sentiment was underscored by Lisa Alexander, Ed.D., M.P.H., P.A., assistant dean for Community-Based Partnerships, who next spoke about GW’s longtime commitment to community service. The faculty at SMHS, she said, “try to inculcate a sense of building relationships…we should teach you how to work together, not compete with one another. We would fail as educators if we did not model that for you.”

The convocation featured Sister Deirdre Byrne, M.D., who delivered the keynote address and received SMHS’s community service award on behalf of Little Workers of the Sacred Heart, a nonprofit clinic in Northeast DC for which she serves as medical director.

Byrne shared anecdotes and wisdom from her career — which she jokingly described as “part time surgery and full time begging”— stressing the importance of serving the underserved and others who “slip through the cracks.”

The ceremony culminated when the students officially cloaked one another in their white coats and recited the SMHS honor code, rituals that mark “a transition from neophyte to the professional,” said Sylvia Silver, D.A., associate dean for the Health Sciences.

 When wearing the white coat, she continued, health professionals portray cleanliness, knowledge, and trustworthiness. “Those who see you [in your white coat] will feel in their heart that they can trust putting their bodies in your hands.”

The convocation was followed by a dessert reception in the Ross Hall courtyard.

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