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White Coat Ceremony kicks off journey for Class of 2020

The Class of 2020 poses with Dean Laurie McCauley on the front steps of the Rackham Building after the White Coat Ceremony on Friday, July 29, 2016.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Aug. 5, 2016 –- Students in the School of Dentistry’s Class of 2020 crossed the stage at Rackham Auditorium and for the first time put on white clinic coats embroidered with their names, a longstanding tradition that marks the start of their dental education and future careers.

The White Coat Ceremony, attended by several hundred people, is a welcome to the profession of dentistry, though the DDS degree is still four years away. It’s about celebrating high achievement to get this far.  It’s about thanking parents, family and friends for the support that’s led to this opportunity. It’s about bracing for the hard work to come.  It’s about getting free advice from a line-up of veteran dentists who unabashedly explain why they love their profession.

The 105 first-year students and two DDS/PhD candidates brought 107 widely diverse histories to the ceremony, as is traditionally the case for the top-ranked dental school that draws applicants from throughout the state, across the country and from around the world. While many of the students come directly from their science-heavy undergrad degrees, other students traveled a longer and more unusual road.

Dr. Larry DeGroat, president of the Michigan Dental Association, delivers the keynote address from the
Rackham stage.
Alvaro Malaga was 11 years old when he moved with his mother from Peru to Ironwood, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  They did not speak English and there were no Spanish-speaking tutors for Alvaro in the local school, so he learned English by watching movies with subtitles in both Spanish and English.  It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he felt comfortable with his English, which corresponded with a significant improvement in his grades. Still, he started his higher education with two years at a local community college before finishing his undergrad degree at U-M.

Justin Terry grew up in Ann Arbor listening to his dentist-father talk about the profession, but Justin chose Hollywood over dentistry, earning a bachelor’s and master’s in production design. He spent more than six years as a set designer in the film industry in California before deciding that the lifestyle and 18-hour work days weren’t what he wanted.  He returned to Michigan, where his father suggested he try working at a dental lab.  He loved the work, went back to school to get the college-level science he needed for dental school, and he’s now a D1 at age 33.

Briana Lung and Kayla Tillman have already given back to the School of Dentistry, even before they started as students. Earlier this summer, they were facilitators for students in the 2016 Profile for Success program, a six-week residential program that prepares students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to be successful applicants to dental schools. Lung and Tillman were members of the 2015 PFS class, which gave them particularly valuable insight as counselors for the 10 members of the latest class.

The Class of 2020’s diversity of experiences, high academic achievement and varied community service were applauded during the ceremony by administrators, faculty and representatives from several state dental organizations.  A common theme: The ability to relate to people and care about them is as important a skill as the technical aspects of dentistry.

Luke Aiura (D4), president of the Class of 2017, told students that the chapters of their lives so far have been inward-focused on their particular accomplishments, but that is about to change.  “Future chapters are no longer just about you’” he said. “When you put your white coat on today, you become a new type of student – and a new type of person with a new identity as a healer. Learning and growing into this new identity comes with many challenges and responsibilities. From here on out, every time you attend a lecture, do a crown prep in Sim Lab, or take an exam in pharmacology, you’re not doing it for yourself anymore.  You’re doing it to earn the trust of those who will literally put their health in your hands.”

Alvaro Malaga puts on his white coat with the help of James Perman (D4). Applauding in the background are Dean Laurie McCauley and Luke Aiura (D4), president of the Class of 2017. At right, Katya Frimenko (D4) holds the coat for the next class member.

Dean Laurie McCauley summarized recent developments at the school that help explain its continued ranking as one of the top dental schools in the world, from a glowing accreditation review last spring to several student-led entrepreneurial projects publicized campus-wide. “Class of 2020, I hope that you know that you are a very important part of a world-class institution,” McCauley said. “You will build on the foundation of others who came before you and I know that you will thrive.  Embrace the experience. Take advantage of the opportunities you are offered.  Make this a time in your life that for years you will look back on as a special era of personal and professional discovery. While you enjoy your academic pursuits, keep your perfect 20-20 vision directed well beyond graduation to a lifelong devotion to our honored profession.”

Dr. Larry DeGroat, president of the Michigan Dental Association, said the class is entering a profession that is considered a great career based on numerous ranking factors. Dentistry was ranked as the best job in the country in 2015 by a national magazine, and finished second in 2016 to a dentistry specialty (orthodontics). “I actually love what I do every day. Not everyone can say that,” DeGroat said. “However, my passion for dentistry goes way beyond the day-to-day clinical side of the profession.  It’s more about the people that I treat and associate with. … My patients are like family to me.  Not only do I know how to treat oral conditions, but just as important, I know and care about what’s going on in their lives.”

Justin Terry grew up in Ann Arbor, left for a career in
the Hollywood film industry, and is now back in the
shadow of Burton Tower at the U-M dental school.
Dentistry is a “dynamic, exciting and utterly fantastic profession,” said Dr. Dennis Charnesky, president of the Michigan Academy of General Dentistry. He noted that his organization provides an ongoing slate of seminars and education programs, which are essential to keep dentists’ continuing education current with the ever-changing procedures, advancements and requirements of the profession.

Dr. Steve Sulfaro, representing the International College of Dentists, an honorary dental society, encouraged students to consider its mission of leadership, scholarship and service to the profession of dentistry and the world.  “One thing I never bargained for when I was a dental student here like you, learning the skills of this profession, is how much richer my life would become because of the many relationships that I have been blessed and privileged to develop,” he said. “(That includes) the patients in my practice and the fine people of my community, of the Fenton-Holly area that I call home, because I am their dentist and, as such, a part of their lives.”

Developing confidence early on is an important part of being a dentist, Dr. Bill Piskorowski, clinical associate professor and assistant dean for Community-Based Dental Education, advised the class. He applauded the students’ stated commitments to community service during their admission process and urged them not to lose that vision. “Start by truly knowing your patients and then practice patient-centered care and evidence-based dentistry,” Piskorowski said. “Then enjoy the results that you will achieve – the countless lives that you will enhance either through improving their self-esteem or their overall health.  To paraphrase Emerson, you cannot help another person without helping and improving yourself first.”

Class member Sarah Waqhar, surrounded by a large group of family and friends at a reception after the ceremony, said the first month of classes has gone well.  She’s still a mix of “excited and nervous,” she said, but calmer after settling in with three roommates and making new friends.  “It is definitely something new, and whatever I expected it to be, or imagined it to be, it is nothing like that, but definitely a lot better,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is that I know that the road ahead will be tough, but to just remember the end goal and that the patients are the end goal.”

Eric Feaster gets a hug from his uncle, Lawrence El-Amin, who traveled from New York for the ceremony.


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at:
Sharon Grayden, Communications Director, at (734) 615-2600,, or Lynn Monson, Writer, at (734) 615-1971.