Rite of Passage

July 30, 2021

Doctor of Physical Therapy students gather before their white coat ceremony on July 27 at MBU's Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

The atrium buzzes with emotion as sharply dressed second-year students and academic who’s-who converge on the Mary Baldwin University Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences (MDCHS) for a milestone ceremony. 

The former are lined up two-by-two in a rear hallway with white physician jackets draped over their forearms like sportcoats. The music cues and they quietly exchange grins, nods, hand slaps, and congrats. Thirty-five students parade through an aisle of chairs, filing into rows as deans, program directors, professors, and MDCHS first-years cheer and applaud.

Doctor of Physical Therapy students gather before their white coat ceremony on July 27 at MBU's Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

The scene quiets as Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program Director Deborah Diaz addresses the Class of 2022 from a podium at the front of the room. 

This student-led event is rooted in a historic rite of passage for medical professionals, says Diaz. “Physicians traditionally received their white coats to symbolize the transition from academic study to professional practice.” 

Here it marks the completion of three semesters of intensive coursework and the start of full-time clinical experiences. Student practitioners will soon enter the first of two 16-week sessions working in outpatient orthopedic care facilities and complex medical environments like hospitals or skilled nursing facilities. To earn their doctorate they must demonstrate mastery of junior-level professional abilities to veteran physical therapists in real-world settings.   

“It’s not going to be easy,” says Diaz, grinning. “Are you ready?” 

Students clap, cheer, pump their fists — and the professors join in.   

“Think back to two years ago when you entered this program and ask: ‘Have I changed?’” asks assistant professor and licensed DPT Marty Fontenot during a commendatory speech. “Well, from my perspective, I’d say you’ve done more than change: You’ve transformed.”

Prof. Marty Fontenot (left) and student speaker Jessica Lupi DPT '22 (right) address the audience at the white coat ceremony.

He and Diaz praise students for triumphing in an atmosphere of unprecedented adversity. They mastered an intensely demanding curriculum amid a global pandemic and economic shutdown. Challenges seemed endless and included a sudden pivot to online learning, new housing situations, isolation from friends and family, and completing lab work at home or in strictly regulated environments. 

What’s more, the group refused to let a single classmate fall behind. 

While the program has a 94 percent graduation rate, “This is the first class in the history of this program where everyone has made it to this ceremony,” says student speaker Jessica Lupi DPT ’22. She calls the achievement testimony to the class’s extraordinary resilience, determination, and compassion for others. 

Members of the PT Class of 2022 at Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

“This is a major accomplishment and you’ve worked hard to earn it. Our belief in each of you as skilled and ethically minded young professionals could not be greater: You’ve gone from asking ‘Can you help me?’ to ‘How can I help you?’”
Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Marty Fontenot

“We were a tight knit group and [when the pandemic struck] we had to work together to find ways to maintain that connection,” says Emily Chandler DPT ’22, a student leader who helped plan the event. Innovations included creating student support groups and holding frequent virtual social gatherings. Video conferences and group text check-ins became part of daily routines. 

Still, making it through was no walk in the park. 

“We definitely leaned on one another pretty heavily to make it through this thing,” says Brent Hevener DPT ’22. But there was a silver lining: “The experience created incredible friendships. I mean, these are some amazing guys and gals. … I know I’m going to be proud to call them my colleagues for decades to come.”

Quan Coles DPT '22 (left) and student event leader Emily Chandler DPT '22 (right) accept their white coats from PT Program Director Deborah Diaz.

When the speeches end, the official ceremony begins. Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Gail Tarleton invites students to the podium one by one, where Diaz helps them into their new physician jackets. Some grin, others shed tears — all doing so amid deluges of peer applause. Each shakes hands with and receives congratulations from Fontenot, Dean of MDCHS Lisa Shoaf, and MBU President Pamela Fox. Afterward, they hold white roses and solemnly recite an oath sanctioned by the American Physical Therapy Association.  

“This is a major accomplishment and you’ve worked hard to earn it,” Fontenot tells students through tears. “Our belief in each of you as skilled and ethically minded young professionals could not be greater: You’ve gone from asking ‘Can you help me?’, to ‘How can I help you?’ Today marks the beginning of your professional careers.”

PT students receive their white coats to mark the transition between intensive coursework and full-time clinical experiences. Here, they recite an American Physical Therapy Association oath as they look toward continuing their education in working healthcare environments.