Stitched through the threads of the physician’s white coat are emblems of both power and responsibility, Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean of the medical school, told the Class of 2008 in late August, as the new students gathered for the ceremony that marks the beginning of their medical education.

Each of the 100 first-year students—who come from 14 countries, 44 undergraduate institutions and previous endeavors in public health, scientific research, the performing arts and investment banking—can be proud to have won admission to a highly competitive medical school, Alpern said. But he urged them to temper that pride with a sense of duty. “Each slot in a medical school is a precious resource to this country,” he said, advising students to use that resource wisely and to assume primary responsibility for their education under the Yale System. “We’re so confident that [you will] that we’re not going to give you grades for a few years.”

He encouraged his listeners to pursue paths to leadership positions in public policy, service, medical education and research and to use their time at Yale to “find out what separates a good doctor from a great doctor.”

While urging the first-years on to high achievement, his primary message was one of humility, empathy and compassion for patients. “You control something that is the most important possession of people, and that is their health,” the dean said. The most important question physicians will ask themselves is: “How would I feel if I were in the position of my patients?” The answer, Alpern said, should determine how a doctor runs a practice, including how long patients are kept waiting, when their phone calls are returned and what sort of respect they receive from their doctor.

“All people deserve your respect. … Perhaps no one needs it more than a patient who is struggling to cope with an illness,” Alpern said. He cautioned against the desensitizing aspects of a physician’s daily routine and urged students to remember that sickness “is not a daily event for your patients.”

Following the dean’s remarks, students walked on stage one by one to be clothed in their white coats by senior faculty. The day was, as the dean said, a celebration of their “talent and hard work.”

But along with high praise, he sent the new class out with a gentle reminder: “As others look up to you, never look down on them.”