If a journey of a lifetime starts with a single step, the first stride for UC Irvine medical students is onto a stage before friends, family and fellow classmates to receive their first white coat.

Each August at the White Coat Ceremony, the incoming first-year medical school class begins what, for many, will be the most challenging and satisfying four years of their lives. The solemn rite of passage is where these future doctors receive their white lab coats and recite the “Oath for the Doctors of Medicine.”

“The White Coat Ceremony is unique in that it celebrates both the end of a long admissions process and the beginning of their professional careers,” said Dr. Ellena Peterson, the medical school’s associate dean of admissions. “Having family and friends present to celebrate this transition makes this ceremony even more special. In a sense, it is a reverse graduation, one filled with pride, anticipation and hope for the future.”

On Aug. 9 in the student center’s Pacific Ballroom, the 104-student Class of 2012 formed for the first time to participate in its own White Coat Ceremony before an estimated 500 well-wishers. Dr. Laura Mosqueda, the Reagan Chair of Geriatrics at UCI, gave the keynote address emphasizing the role of humanism and care in the practice of medicine.

“I loved hearing Dr. Mosqueda talk about the importance of treating the whole person,” said Megan Tan, a former human rights worker who enters the school as part of PRIME-LC, the first medical education program in the U.S. focused on Latino healthcare issues. “I’m feeling absolutely excited and nervous mixed with lots of hope and expectation.”

The ceremony is part of an orientation process that ends with the start of classes Aug. 13. But more than that, it’s a time when a diverse and driven group of men and women learn about each other and begin to forge lifelong relationships.

“It’s really surprising and motivating to learn about all the skills and experiences of the people who make up my class,” said Erin Moix Grieb, a 29-year-old mother of twin girls. “I am completely excited and thought this day would never come. It’s a proud moment, and I just want to get started.”

And it all starts by putting on a simple white coat. “The experience was amazing,” Vincent Whelan said. “Putting on that white coat made me feel like I made it.”