Incoming first-year students at Western University of Health Sciences probably didn’t know it, but they set a record on Saturday, August 6, 2011, when they gathered for WesternU’s annual Convocation and white coat ceremonies at the Ontario Convention Center.

The group of more than 1,100 future osteopathic physicians, pharmacists, nurses, veterinarians, physician assistants, physical therapists, dentists, optometrists, podiatrists and biomedical scholars was the largest-ever entering class in WesternU’s history, which began in 1977 and included an initial class of just 36 osteopathic students in 1978.

The size of the incoming class also pushed the University’s total enrollment past 3,200 for the 2011-12 academic year – another record.

On Saturday, students, their families and friends gathered in the largest area of the convention center, Exhibit Hall A, to hear a welcome from WesternU’s administration, faculty and alumni, and to be inspired by the words of keynote speaker Herb Schultz, Regional Director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Region IX.

“The whole practice of what we call health care will change over the next four years,” Schultz told the students following his introduction by Philip Pumerantz, PhD, founding president of WesternU. “I’m here to encourage you to join us in change.”

After lamenting the fact that the U.S. health care system “has been a sickness system, not a wellness system,” Schultz noted that bold strides have been made in the past year to improve access to health care for all Americans, especially children. “No children in the U.S. can now be denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions,” he said. “In six months, we’ve insured 600,000 young adults in this country. By the time you graduate, 32 million more Americans will have health coverage than do today.”

Schultz’s diverse region includes Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. He is HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ key representative in the region, maintaining close contact by the federal government with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and other partners on a wide range of health and social service issues.

That diversity is important to Schultz, who noted that WesternU’s academic diversity, as well as the sociocultural diversity of its student body, is a tremendous asset in the health-care world.

“One of the things I love about WesternU is that you represent America. You represent the people you will serve,” he said. Remembering that those patients are what matters most should allow all involved in the health-care debate to look past partisan politics and find a clear path to better health care for everyone, he concluded. “Politics to me is about working with you to make change happen.”

Following welcomes from faculty, student and alumni speakers, Dr. Pumerantz officially opened the academic year, and the students broke off into their individual colleges to participate in white coat ceremonies, where college faculty coated them with their first white jackets, symbolizing not only their entry into the world of health professions, but also the academic and personal support they will receive while at WesternU.

“As the white coat is placed upon your shoulders today, remember that you are entering into a relationship with people who will look to you for knowledge, skill, caring, and for hope,” WesternU Executive Vice Provost Gary Gugelchuk, PhD, told students at the College of Graduate Nursing white coat ceremony. “The white coat symbolizes the start of what we hope will be a long, fulfilling life of service to your patients.”

Ramon L. Lavandero, RN, MA, MSN, FAAN, Director of Communications and Strategic Alliances for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, gave the keynote address at the College of Graduate Nursing white coat ceremony. He told students to be visible to patients and their families, to colleagues, and to themselves. Being invisible isn’t an option.

You become invisible if you don’t identify yourself as a nurse, or if you don’t speak out when you see others act in a way that might hurt patients, he said.

“Every time I act as a nurse, I act for all of nursing,” Lavandero said. “When I’m interacting directly with a patient or their family members, I am nursing.”

College of Veterinary Medicine keynote speaker John Payne, President and Chief Executive Office of Banfield The Pet Hospital, told the 105 students in CVM’s Class of 2015 that they “have a responsibility … to make veterinary medicine something better than it is today, and it’s already fantastic.”

After praising the College’s problem-based approach to learning and its commitment to enhancing students’ communication skills, Payne passed on a piece of wisdom that resonated with the audience: “Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“This is the greatest profession on earth,” Payne concluded. “The demand for veterinarians has never been stronger, and the future of veterinary medicine has never been brighter.”

New students know they have a lot of work ahead of them, but they’re also looking forward to an exciting first year.

First-year College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific student Anastacia Rodriguez is a Convocation veteran, having attended last year’s ceremony as a Master of Science in Medical Sciences (MSMS) student. The one-year program is designed to enhance students’ learning and reasoning skills and improve their chances at successfully applying to the professional colleges at WesternU and other institutions.

“I’m ready to go,” Rodriguez said. “Last year was a really good stepping stone. I feel like the MSMS program really prepared us for what to expect.”

Students find WesternU to be a welcoming campus. Staff and faculty are always willing to help, said first-year Physician Assistant student Gaby Galindo.

“They seem to care about our goals and our future and helping us reach them,” she said.

Students heard about WesternU’s humanistic philosophy during the application process, and now see it in action.

“Being here, we really feel it,” said first-year College of Dental Medicine student Amin Khoshnevisan. “Humanism is being a family. That’s what we are.”

WesternU students are often used to cutthroat competition among classmates as undergraduates, a far cry from what they find here.

“With podiatric medicine being a growing field, we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we are cutthroat. Why would we want to sabotage ourselves?” said first-year College of Podiatric Medicine (CPM) student Alex Dawoodian. “It’s the right attitude for a growing profession to have, to try to mentor one another as much as we can.”

“We’re not going to let each other fail,” said CPM classmate Alexandra Shendrik.

The convocation and white coat ceremonies are a chance to share with loved ones the excitement of starting a health professions program. First-year Physician Assistant student Austin Petrich brought his parents, Brooke and Tom, to the ceremony.

“We’re proud and honored to have our son be accepted to WesternU’s PA program,” Brooke Petrich said.

Austin puts 100 percent into everything he does, said his father, Tom. He’s really caring and he pays attention to detail and is a team player, which will make him a great health care professional.

“I’m excited for him, in what the future has in store for him,” Tom Petrich said. “It’s the beginning.”