HARLINGEN — The room quickly turned emotional as family, friends and possible new mentors watched 56 students get cloaked with their white coat as they prepare to begin the first year of medical school at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

This is the third cohort to walk the stage to receive the ceremonial white coat for the UTRGV School of Medicine, which opened its doors in 2016. And this time the event was hosted at the Harlingen school district’s Performing Arts Center, a city in which the region-wide university has a campus and several clinics for these students to practice medicine.

“This is just an accumulation of so much hard work,” said student Stephanie Onyechi, of Sugar Land, Texas, after the ceremony. “Coming to the school and seeing how it’s been on the works for 70 years and all the community has been fighting for it, it’s kind of amazing that we are all a part of this experience. And just thinking about the future, I’m just so excited of what’s going to come next.”

The ceremony was led by Dr. Leonel Vela, senior associate dean for education and academic affairs at UTRGV School of Medicine, who introduced school officers as well as the keynote speaker, Dr. John Prescott, chief academic officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Prescott had the opportunity to meet the students Friday, he said, and talked to them about some of the lessons he learned throughout his more than 30-year career in medicine which above all, he said, reminded him to remain humble, interested in learning every day and focused on providing a service to the community.

“There is more to learn than there is time to learn it,” he told the wide-eyed students before they walked the stage. “Earn the title of Doctor, by always listening to the patients carefully and demonstrating respect and being respectful… your golden standard should always be, ‘Am I treating this patient the way that I want my family to be cared for as a physician?”

The students also received their first homework assignment, or prescription of sorts, from Prescott, as he told them to take some time that same day to write a letter to themselves in which they describe the physician they hope to be, their dreams and aspirations of themselves and the profession. The letter is not to be opened until 10 years have passed, he specified, so that it can serve as a reminder of where they want to be in 10 years and a self-evaluation of whether or not they have managed to remain true to their aspirations.

“Ten years from now you will finish medical school, you’ll be finished with residency programs, you’ll be practicing medicine somewhere,” he said. “You are going to be amazed at how much you’ve changed, and how much you are still that bright-eyed medical student back at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.”

The diverse group of students includes 14 who are from the Valley, some who left the area to complete their bachelor’s degree and came back and others who have taken the opportunity to complete all their education close to home.

That is the case of Rodolfo Singleterry, of Mission, who was excited to have the ability to stay home during his entire education, as he received his bachelor’s from UTRGV before being accepted at the School of Medicine. The 25-year-old was not only happy to have been able to invite his extended family and friend to this event, but said he was eager to get the skills needed to practice and serve the community he grew up in.

“If I went to a different school I wouldn’t have my family here as much,” he said as he headed out to meet nearly 25 friends and family that accompanied him at the ceremony. “The community is what I love the most. … I definitely want to do like rural health, the colonias is a very big thing, so getting out there and actually helping. That was a big thing for me, because I feel like in some other cities I might not get that and especially being so close to the border, I know how important that is here.”

And just like Singleterry, his new classmate Onyechi said it was the interest of servicing these communities that attracted her to the recently-created institution.

Onyechi, 25, said previous exposure to the area through missionary trips as an undergraduate at Baylor University, encouraged her to apply at the UTRGV School of Medicine. Those trips, even though short, exposed her to the need in the community, but she said she felt the need to be here long term to also experience the impact that their services could make.

“I fell in love with the community here and every year I would serve for like five or six years and I thought, ‘how amazing would it be to spend four years actually being able to commit,’” she said. “You never really know how much of an impact you are making, especially when it’s for such a short period. But being stationed here for four years and being able to see the way the community receives us and the way the community is changed by us, is going to be so cool.”

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