Student practices giving an exam to fellow student.
Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., senior assistant dean of admissions and family medicine physical, looks on as medical students practice physical exams skills. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Preparing students for a healthy start to medical school

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When Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., began medical school at the Medical College of Virginia Campus 40 years ago, orientation was the three days before the start of classes.

“I was nervous, after you purchased books and toured the campus, classes began,” said Whitehurst-Cook, now the senior associate dean of admissions in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Whitehurst-Cook went from a nervous student doctor to a confident family medicine physician. She eventually returned to the VCU School of Medicine to impact the lives of student doctors.

“My mentor in high school and throughout college was an admissions dean and I wanted to give back,” Whitehurst-Cook said. “As a family medicine physician and a member of the family medicine faculty, I especially wanted to help meet the need for more primary care doctors. I felt working with the admissions committee might help address this need.”

In her 24 years of working in medical school admissions, Whitehurst-Cook has led a shift to approach medical school orientation in a more holistic way. Now, orientation is a two-week experience that focuses on character building and student wellness.

“We want students to have a healthy start to medical school and we hope it affirms why they choose to become a medical doctor,” Whitehurst-Cook said.

VCU’s newest student doctors will complete their first week of orientation Friday, with a white coat ceremony marking the beginning of their journey to becoming a doctor and their entrance into the medical profession. VCU News caught up with Whitehurst-Cook to learn more about the annual ceremony and how orientation at the School of Medicine has changed over the past 40 years.

How has orientation changed since you attended medical school?

Orientation in the ‘70s was very different from the current approach. What used to be three days to prep for classes is now a two-week experience that is designed to help students have a healthier start to medical school.

During orientation, students get to know their classmates and learn how to work in teams, and they are introduced to Richmond and become familiar with upperclass students, faculty and other resources. The second week is a boot camp for physical exam and medical history taking skills. 

How does it work?

This holistic approach begins as early as the admissions interviews, which require character references that help the admissions team find applicants who are not only smart, but who have a strong work ethic, are empathetic and have good communication skills — traits that only the best physicians possess.

Doctor sits at table with four students.
Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., talks with medical students. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

What does the white coat ceremony mean to new medical students?

The white coat ceremony symbolizes the serious responsibility and high expectations for becoming a student doctor. Their interaction with patients in school and in the community will begin very soon, making them part of a long legacy of health care providers who are highly respected members of their community.

VCU hopes the ceremony will help crystallize this exciting transition in their life from premed to student doctor. That transition comes with the expectation of integrity, respect and compassion for their fellow man. This ceremony provides the beginning point of donning the white coat to a journey of becoming the best physician ever.

What do you want students to take away from the first two weeks of medical school?

This first two weeks should highlight the fact that medicine is a team sport: Support each other, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and engage together in self-care.

The class of 2023 is smart, nice and they come with a wide range of experiences to share. Students should anticipate a week of fun, meeting new friends and acclimating to their new environment. 


Whitehurst-Cook was recently selected by the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians as the 2019 recipient of the F. Elliott Oglesby, MD Volunteer of the Year Award for outstanding service to her profession and exemplifying the true nature of volunteerism.