On August 11, Jheison Giraldo ’21, a third-year student in the Renaissance School of Medicine, delivered the student address to incoming students at the School of Medicine’s White Coat Ceremony. Giraldo, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia and is the first member of his family to graduate from college, spoke about his experience at Stony Brook and his advice for the Class of 2023.
What a privilege it is giving the student address today. It was exactly two years ago when I sat somewhere over there. I was so nervous that day that I barely remembered anything at all. Only a couple of things really stood out to me.
I remember being way too worried about tripping on my way up to the stage and aiming my arms correctly so that when they put on my white coat it would go on smoothly. You know, you have to look good up here.
Then, I remember taking steps across this stage, and when I turned to put on my white coat I heard my family cheer. I completely forgot about my arms and looked at my mom and brother.
I walked over to pick my new stethoscope, and I turned around and looked back, because right behind me was my wife.
I remember when we stood on this stage together, our families cheering… THAT moment became one of my most cherished memories. I realized that this would be the beginning of an adventure for both of us, and what an adventure it has been.
I have watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books where the main character goes on an adventure, and they get one special item. Today, you start your adventure and you get one very special item. It’s the white coat.
I don’t know if they told you, but the white coat you’re receiving has got magic. It will allow you to sleep the least amount you’ve ever slept before. Your focus will become 10 times as sharp. Your brain will be able to absorb more information than you have ever been able to hold, and your fingers will type as fast as the Flash when you are writing notes.
I am obviously joking, but the white coat gives you superpowers. It opens doors for research opportunities, and community outreach programs that would be impossible to get while you were pre-med. People actually listen to medical students.
The biggest power it has is with patients. I’ve had patients tell me things they have never told their closest family members.
One patient told me about their suicide attempts. At the end of the conversation, they told me I was the first person they ever told that to.
Just last week, I saw a patient be strong for his family. He told them that he was going to be okay, and he was confident. Then, the family left and he broke down in tears. He told me about all of his fears; he told me he was afraid to die.
For some reason, the patients know that you will listen. They know that you are there to help them, that you will behave in a way that benefits them and upholds their values, and most importantly, that you are trustworthy. That is a superpower.
This is something that has been built by the people who have come before you. They have built an image of empathy, compassion, professionalism and altruism.
These are just a few of the qualities that make a good physician. When you put on that white coat, that is what it represents. It is important to think about that, when you are in the library, in the classroom, and in the hospital. You represent those who have come before you.
The power that I’ve been talking about is in every thread of your white coat. Every physician adds another thread, and whether positive or negative, they shape the way that patients and communities see us.
It is a power that we all build together. In four years’ time, you will also add your thread to the white coat.
Now, I know it seems like a lot of responsibility — and this is your first week — but the next four years will prepare you for the future.
When those patients shared those things with me, all I could think was, “I’m just a medical student; why are you telling me these things?” even though I knew I was prepared to handle those situations.
In all honesty, I have to say that we all have a little of that “impostor syndrome,” that feeling that we are not good enough or that we don’t belong. You may think at some point after a hard week that someone made a mistake, they sent the acceptance to the wrong person. I joke with my wife about this. I say to her, “Hey, they haven’t caught on to us yet.” Even standing here today, I’m asking, “Why me?”
My first thought is that I always say, “Yes,” so they knew I would show up. My second is that I can give you some perspective about success.
I’m the first person in my family to graduate college. I’m a Colombian immigrant that came from a family of farmers, raised by my mother who is a house cleaner and a brother who, instead of pursuing school himself, helped me in every way that he could.
I know firsthand how many barriers there are just to graduate college. I was one of the Student National Medical Association presidents. My knowledge of these barriers allowed me to teach those in our community who might face these same barriers how to overcome them.
I was part of a group of very committed medical students and faculty who brought hundreds of underserved students to this medical school, all in hopes that we can inspire them and help them get over these barriers.
Last year was the first year that one of our very own HOPE program graduates matriculated to medical school, and guess where they went? That’s right: they came here to the Renaissance School of Medicine.
I could go on about me, but my point is not to pay attention to what I have achieved but to pay attention to my first reaction. After I received this prestigious honor, I thought, “Am I good enough?” Despite all my success, it’s the question that I asked myself before every major achievement that I have had.
In this field, there will always be those moments of doubt. You will feel that you don’t belong, or that you may not be good enough to reach your goals. I’m here to tell you that it’s all a lie.
Hopefully, my perspective will help you in those moments of doubt, because if I can do this, so can you!
Fear of failure is what keeps us from achieving our highest potential, and this room is filled with potential. So, as you start your adventure/career, I have some pearls of wisdom that will help you along the way. It’s seven things that have really helped me get through these last couple of years.
- Be open to new opportunities. You never know where they will take you
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Be confidently wrong. It’s OK. It’s a learning opportunity. When you are right, you don’t learn anything new.
- This is where you begin to build your professional careers. Remember that you will leave your mark on the white coat. Think of medical school like a job or an apprenticeship. You are now far from your undergraduate days.
- Don’t worry so much about the arms. We focus too much on a little thing, the minutiae. In the long run, these things don’t really matter. Make sure to look at the big picture and enjoy the moment.
- Sometimes you just need to pretend, fake your confidence, because eventually, you forget that you are pretending.
- Never stop doing the things that make you happy: your hobbies, your friendships. Go to the gym, or if you are like me, don’t forget Netflix. Medical school is long, and burnout is real. Take care of yourself.
- The last and most important pearl is an idea I got from Mister Rogers. I am going to paraphrase what he says because I could never speak in a way that he does. What I want you to do is think about those who have helped you become the person who you are. Anyone who has ever gone to medical school, anyone who has ever done good work, has had one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of investments from others. I’d like to ask everyone here to take a second, close your eyes, and think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some of them might be far away. Some may have passed on, but wherever they are, if they have loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what is best in life for you, they are right inside yourself. I feel like they deserve a short bit of thought on this momentous day.
Now, I want you all to open your eyes and look around, see all these new faces around you.
These are the people who will be with you for the next four years. It’s here in medical school that you will form lifelong bonds and friendships.
I want you to look at the faculty and alumni who are here to guide and support you as you grow into physicians, and I want you to look back at all of your family and friends who have helped you get you where you are today. This is the exercise that always helps me, because I know that I am not alone.
You have hundreds of people that you can rely on. We are a big family here, and it’s my pleasure to officially welcome you all to the Renaissance School of Medicine family.
Congratulations, Class of 2023.