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Paying it Forward

The white coat, though light in fiber, is heavy with symbolism: donning it means carrying the weight of responsibility, of patient worries and concerns, of knowledge. It also serves as a tangible reminder of stepping into a profession, whether it’s medicine or the health sciences. For the graduates of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ (SMHS) Physical Therapy (PT) and Physician Assistant (PA) programs, it’s a sign of support from those who came before them.

“It’s now been a tradition to donate the white coats specifically, rather than just a class gift,” explains Alyssa Breslin, DPT ’18. “We were actually the first class to receive [white coats from new alumni], so we’re giving back what we got, and not necessarily just some random [gift] that isn’t very meaningful.”

The tradition of paying it forward — new graduates donating money to provide white coats for the incoming class — has added to the student experience, Breslin and Sean Yu, PA-C ’17, say.

“For me, I really felt like we’re all starting on this new adventure, a new journey at the end of our program,” Yu says. “Because the white coat symbolizes something really fantastic, I thought it was great that the class above us and PA alumni helped to defray the cost.”

Breslin’s class, in coming full circle as the first recipients of the tradition, boasted 100 percent participation with donations. They also included an extra token: handwritten notes tucked into the pocket of each coat.

“It’s not just a coat, it’s a coat with something personal in it to give some encouragement in those first few months of starting the program, which is pretty terrifying for a lot of people,” Breslin explains. “A lot of my classmates were really thoughtful in their responses.”

Yu, meanwhile, issued a charge to his fellow alumni from the Class of 2017: for every dollar donated, he would match it, up to $1,300.

“For me, the entire reason I felt this was really important was … at the end of day, the coat symbolizes something for everybody. I think some people, for them, I’m finished and that’s it. Others, it’s a symbol of starting a new life,” he says.

Paying for the coat themselves, he adds, would’ve cheapened the meaning; it would’ve been just another cost. Having the white coat provided by those perhaps older, wiser, and more experienced made it all the more valuable — and Yu would like the tradition to continue.

“I think it’d be great if we could start a tradition of each PA class … contributing enough, between them and other alumni, to be able to give every class a free coat,” he says. “I think that would be a wonderful thing.”