Kyle Benkel ’20 traded his UCF football jersey for a white coat Monday — even though his new uniform, recognizing him as a physician-in-training, came in a plastic bag instead of being presented at a ceremony.

Benkel was one of 120 new College of Medicine students who began training at a time drastically changed by COVID-19. There was no traditional White Coat Ceremony with each student coated by Deborah German, vice president for health affairs and founding dean of UCF’s medical school, in front of family and friends. Instead, this year’s event was included drive-through and virtual components. Office of Student Affairs leaders and staff put backpacks containing supplies and a white coat into each students’ car trunk. Orientation and classes begin today, virtually.

“Wow, it’s like my new jersey,” says Benkel as he took a brand-new white coat out of its packaging and held it up to his chest. A wide receiver on the team that beat Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl, Benkel is also an honors graduate of the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences who decided to enter medicine after seeing how physicians healed him twice from football injuries when he was a teen.

“It means the world to me to be able to come to UCF and study medicine,” he says. “I learned a lot of different things from football — and a lot of it is overcoming adversity. So, whenever I’m faced with a challenge, I know that I can conquer it.”

One of those challenges is the physical distancing required during the pandemic. Some students said they were saddened they couldn’t participate in the traditional White Coat Ceremony and meet new classmates in person. But several said the reality of COVID-19 had strengthened their passion for medicine.

“This pandemic really emphasizes the important role a physician plays and it has made my passion stronger.” – Hannah Sage ’20

“This pandemic really emphasizes the important role a physician plays and it has made my passion stronger,” says Hannah Sage ’20, a mathematics graduate who had placed third in the 2018 National Jeopardy College Challenge before coming to medical school. “It makes me want to be able to help. I’m so close, but I still can’t. So I’m excited to learn what I can and make my impact in a couple years.”

During a videotaped portion of the event, German talked about the current state of the nation as students begin their training.

“These are unsettling times. We’re fighting a pandemic and racial injustice,” she said to the new class. “But this is a time for you to rise to the occasion — through your compassion, humility and professionalism.”

At each year’s White Coat Ceremony, new medical students participate in their first lesson — “The Good Doctor”, a UCF tradition. There, German asks students to imagine the person they love most and then describe the traits they want their beloved person’s physician to have. As students list the characteristics, their dean writes the words on a blackboard that is displayed all year in the College of Medicine rotunda.

This year, the tradition was also adapted for a virtual setting. Each student emailed in 10 to 15 words and German wrote on a blackboard the most chosen characteristics — including “compassionate”, “humble”, “knowledgeable”, “ethical”, “reliable”, “trustworthy”, “caring”, “honest” and “respectful”.

“You have defined ‘The Good Doctor’,” German said as she stood in front of the board. “These words will stay in the rotunda until the Class of 2025 arrives. Everyone who enters the medical school will see the contract you have made with each other, with your faculty, your community and with me.”

Three students from College of Medicine’s Class of 2024 hold up their white coats after picking them up during the drive-through process. (Photo by Christin Senior)

The Class of 2024 is UCF’s twelfth and includes 58 women and 62 men. Its members had an average college GPA of 3.81 and 513 score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The class includes two military veterans and graduates from Brown, Duke, Emory, Florida State University, Notre Dame, Rollins College, Stanford, University of Florida, University of Miami and University of South Florida. Sixteen are UCF alums and 15 were first-generation graduates in their families.

In his welcoming virtual remarks, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright said the students were joining a young medical school that is “pioneering how to help people live better.”

He spoke of the educational, research and patient care opportunities students will have as the university opens its new teaching hospital, UCF Lake Nona Medical Center, and new UCF Lake Nona Cancer Center in early 2021 next to the medical school.

“This is an exciting time for UCF and an even more exciting time for you,” he said. “You are needed now more than ever.”