The Meaning of the White Coat Ceremony

The University of Minnesota Medical School welcomes the Class of 2026 to the beginning of their journey into the medical profession.

Being presented with a white coat is a rite of passage for medical students signifying their entrance into medical school. In 1993, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation established this tradition at Columbia University. U of M Medical School was one of the early adopters of this ceremony, now executed at most medical schools across the country.

The most crucial element of the ceremony is taking the Hippocratic Oath to obligate their responsibility to care for future patients with integrity, empathy and humility. It provides a robust emphasis on compassion in combination with clinical excellence.

For Zuag Paj Her, a Hmong American first-generation student, the symbolism of the white coat is profound. Her emphasizes the huge privilege she feels to be able to don the white coat as she acknowledges all the hard work and sacrifices that led her here.

During her undergraduate degree, Her was declared pre-medicine but realized later that she enjoyed research and questioned whether to pursue a career in academic research instead. However, Her’s engagement in research during her postbaccalaureate years at Mayo Clinic did not completely satiate her professional interests, which led her to unexpectedly volunteer in the hospital again. Through this, Her garnered a trusting relationship with a particular pediatric patient, which rekindled her desire to become a physician.

She notes, “Because of that patient, I fully decided that I was going back to take my MCAT and seriously pursue my medical degree.” As she reflected on the privilege of donning a white coat, it illuminated her appreciation for the people who have inspired her along the way, including the patient from Mayo Clinic and her maternal grandmother. Her’s grandmother had diabetes and was a two-time stroke survivor with many other underlying health issues. At a very young age, Her would take care of her grandmother, as well as her cousins and help her around the house.

“My grandmother always told me I was a natural caretaker and that I have such a good heart. She told me I should be in a field where I can take care of patients. She never explicitly said to become a doctor, but in a field where I’m taking care of people,” says Her, “I initially thought I was going to be a nurse. Still, something else manifested in me, and here I am pursuing my medical degree.”

Her grew up in a small rural town with a high school graduating class of 23 students. “As a first-generation Hmong American woman with immigrant parents and who came from an underserved community, I didn’t have a role model or somebody to look up to in medicine,” she says.

Her hopes to give back to underserved and disadvantaged communities, particularly the Hmong community. “There is, unfortunately, some social stigma in the Hmong Community against health care, doctors and [what] a white coat [represents]. That is mainly because there isn’t enough representation,” explains Her.

“[The white coat] is a symbol of hope for people who don’t have representation or didn't get to see representation in this field,” Her emphasizes, “It’s a huge honor and privilege for me to be able to do that for them.”

She adds, “It gives hope to all the little Hmong girls, refugees, first-generation students, people of color, women of color and women in STEM in general.”

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Learn more about our incoming Class of 2026 and how we continue to build on our diversity, here.

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