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White Coats Take on Special Meaning for Class of ‘68

Bruce Burke, MD
Bruce Burke, MD standing on stage during the 2019 White Coat Ceremony to represent the Class of 1968 and their endowed gift

August 12, 2020

Two people at opposite ends of their careers found common ground at the 2019 White Coat Ceremony.

Dr. Bruce Burke was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from UCI School of Medicine. Yueqi Ren was just beginning her medical school journey at UCI. Burke was there to see the students receive their first white coats, made possible by an endowment from the Class of ‘1968.

The now-traditional ceremony—where incoming medical students receive their first white coat, take the Hippocratic Oath and recite the Medical Student’s Pledge—was introduced more than two decades after Burke’s graduation in 1968.

“In those days,” says Burke, a board-certified neurosurgeon, “we bought our own white coats during our second year of medical school.”

Although there was no White Coat Ceremony for the Class of ’68, they do hold the distinction of being the first to receive diplomas that read, “University of California, Irvine.” Earlier diplomas bore both the UC and California College of Medicine names, acknowledging that the first UCI medical students had trained at both institutions.

“We graduated from a young school without a lot of traditions. When we went off for our internships, we were apprehensive about how we would compare with students graduating from more established medical schools,” says Burke, a board-certified neurosurgeon. “It was interesting to learn that most of us felt comfortable and performed well in our new training programs. The UCI faculty and medical school experience had done a great job of preparing us.” 

Their class gift was intended to express gratitude and thanks for the education they had received at one of the nation’s newest medical schools.

Several decades later, Ren found her way to UCI through bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. During her undergraduate years, she matched with a mentor who was pursuing a MD-PhD program. She was drawn to the idea that her mentor had control over his own research projects and that he was able to develop something uniquely from his own clinical experiences.

Ren also did a summer internship at Bayer in Germany. It was her first corporate position.

“I liked the people [at Bayer]. It was a really great experience,” says Ren. “But, I didn’t like being on a project that I didn’t personally care about. It’s not for everyone; it’s about fit.” 

The experience cemented her decision to prepare for a career in medical research. That led to interest in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)-funded Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).

There are currently 50 MSTP programs at schools across the U.S., preparing students to undertake biomedical research and research-related careers in academia, industry and government. Ren wanted a medical school with a robust MSTP program.

Medical Student
Medical student, Yueqi Ren, receiving her first white coat sponsored by the Class of 1968

That led her to UCI and to the white coat ceremony, which was generously supported by a gift from Burke’s Class of ‘68.

“When we planned our reunion, we hoped we were starting a tradition of class giving,” says Burke. “We thought: a career in medicine, taking care of patients—it’s an honor and privilege to be able to do that. We have been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to practice medicine.  The white coat is a symbol of honor and responsibility. We want to support and welcome future medical leaders, researchers, teachers and practitioners into the UCI School of Medicine family, and watch the school continue to grow in stature and influence.”

Ren, for one, appreciated the gift.

“It was a very precious moment. It acknowledged all the work it took to get there, not just by you [the medical student], but by all the people who supported you,” says Ren.

“It was even more special because the white coats were given to us by alumni.  Especially since UCI is a young school, having support of alumni makes us feel as if we are in this together, that we are special. It’s great we have so many alumni involved.”

Perhaps one day Dr. Yueqi Ren will be among the alumni celebrating a milestone graduation anniversary with a class gift to the bright, creative medical students who choose UCI.