From the comfort of his own backyard, Dr. Robert West recently helped Martha Oberg don her first white coat, symbolizing the start of her journey as a WSU medical student. The event was especially meaningful to Oberg because West, a long-practicing Coeur d’Alene-area physician, is her grandfather.

“He was my role model growing up, so I was really happy to be able to share this experience with him,” Martha Oberg said. “Because of COVID-19 restrictions, we weren’t going to be able to get together as a family at an actual ceremony, so we decided to hold our own private reception at his home.”

Oberg’s close family celebration is just one example of how the combined 326 first-year students in WSU’s colleges of Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences are already adapting to the changes of a new school year under the shadow of COVID-19.

To accommodate physical distancing restrictions, new students in the three colleges were welcomed to the University via a virtual White Coat Ceremony this year. This ceremony is an annual tradition where doctors, pharmacists and veterinarians in training receive a white coat that symbolizes the start of their careers.

Coats were mailed to students prior to this year’s ceremonies, which were streamed on the College of Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences YouTube pages.

The College of Veterinary Medicine event featured graduates of the program and current students giving advice to the incoming students, who were introduced along with a slide and their personal photos.

Martha Oberg holds up a heart during an interactive portion of the College of Medicine's White Coat Ceremony
Martha Oberg participates in the College of Medicine’s virtual White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 21 (photo by WSU Photo Services).

New Doctor of Pharmacy students were welcomed by College leadership and two of their peers in the class of 2022 before taking a pledge of professionalism together. Slides were then shared describing what their white coat and professionalism meant to them.

Oberg and her classmates in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine participated in drive-thru coating events at either the Spokane or Everett campuses. As their family and friends watched and snapped photos from their vehicles, students had their names called, walked across an outdoor stage and were coated by the college’s associate deans of clinical education.

For Oberg, who participated in the Spokane campus event, it was just the beginning of the celebration. She then drove to her grandfather’s house in nearby Coeur d’Alene where he helped her don her new coat in front of her close family. They then watched a webcast of the College of Medicine’s White Coat Ceremony together on a TV that had been set up outside.

New students received messages of welcome from WSU leadership and college faculty shared personal accounts of what the white coat means to them. Slides were then shared with each student’s picture and personal pledge as a doctor in training.

Oberg said the experience finally made the idea that she is about to become a physician hit home. It is a profession she sees as more important now than ever before.

“All of the craziness and uncertainty that is going on right now as a result of COVID-19 has really reaffirmed my belief that we need strong and capable physicians in Eastern Washington to help lead the community through this,” Oberg said. “I am really proud to be following in my grandfather’s footsteps.”