The 101 members of the Yale School of Medicine’s Class of 2015 looked elated but also a little incredulous as they climbed the stairs of the stage in Harkness Auditorium to receive their white coats and their faculty’s welcome to the field of medicine on August 18.
Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, has seen that look before. “You’re probably thinking, ‘How did I get into Yale? Do I belong in a place that has educated some of the greatest minds in medicine?’ Well, let me assure you, this was not a careless error. The answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ ” he said.
But if any of these eager students thought that they are in for an easy time of it at a school that eschews grades and class rankings, Alpern set them straight on that score as well. “We expect more from you than grades could engender,” he said. “We know we don’t need grades to induce you to do your best.”
David A. Hafler, M.D., chair and Gilbert H. Glaser Professor of Neurology and the event’s keynote speaker, shared his own early memories of donning the white coat. “I felt like I was an impostor. It took a while for the white coat to fit,” he said. But one day as he was preparing to see a patient, he stopped by his office to grab his white coat, and it hit him: “Now I’m comfortable in it.” The garment’s dramatic symbolism is “imprinted on my soul.”
Hafler conveyed three messages to the incoming class. The first: Never lie to yourself. Recognize that curiosity, that passion within you, and pursue it. Second: “You need mentors.” Hafler urged the students to cultivate “bidirectional relationships” with faculty members who share their professional interests and passions. “The faculty here truly do care,” he said.
Hafler’s third message—perhaps the hardest: “You’ve got to be tougher than they are.” Despite being admitted into one of the most selective medical schools in the country, he said, students will face obstacles and rejections along the way. Borrowing from Winston Churchill, he said “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to fail; and know that when you do, that’s a sign of courage.”
Hafler’s exhortation to nurture relationships with mentors must have had special resonance for Jordan Gruskay, a new first-year who is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Frank Gruskay, M.D. ’54, and his father, Jeffrey Gruskay, M.D. ’81, in coming to Yale.
The senior Gruskays, who didn’t have white coat ceremonies when they went to Yale but made sure to be present for Jordan’s, downplayed their role in influencing Jordan to choose Yale. “Growing up, there was always a lot of medical talk, and Jordan saw firsthand how incredible the work is, but he’s a pretty independent guy,” said Frank. “I can tell you he didn’t choose Yale because we wanted him to.” Jeffrey thought it was the Yale system more than family tradition that tipped the scale in favor of Yale. “He was an athlete in high school, so he’s used to teamwork,” he said. “The idea of cooperating with classmates appealed to him.”
While his father and grandfather are both partially right, Jordan said there was another element—call it familial mentoring—that factored into his decision. “On the day of my interview, I was walking around thinking about how rich the history of Yale is, and I started to think about how my father and grandfather studied here, and it just made it that much more special to me.”