When I interviewed for medical school, I wore a $6 suit jacket from Goodwill. It was clean and in good condition, though a little baggy on me. But I wore it because neither my parents nor I had the money for a $200 coat that would fit me perfectly. Even now in medical school, I often wear second-hand clothes under my white coat. Although my military scholarship has helped me expand my clothing budget, I still can’t bear to spend more than what’s necessary.
When I first started medical school, I truly believed that the white coat was an equalizer. I thought when my classmates and I started classes, we’d have access to the same resources, the same personal support, and the same opportunities for mentorship and advancement. But I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In the past 10 years, I’ve worked to pay for college, shopped at thrift stores, and struggled to find myself a primary care physician while covered under Medicaid (let alone finding a physician to shadow as a pre-med). However, many of my more privileged classmates have had time and resources to develop personal interests, get involved in their communities, and build relationships with mentors. And these different backgrounds have influenced our medical school experiences.
Take, for example, my decision to accept a military scholarship to pay for medical school. An important factor in my decision was my family’s financial insecurity at that time, because I knew my financial independence would be a huge help to them. I certainly don’t regret my decision, but my military scholarship has come with some additional obligations. During the summer that I went to Commissioned Officer Training (aka “boot camp”), many of my classmates completed a summer research project, presented their posters, and got their names on papers. I also remember several pictures from the Caribbean on my classmates’ Instagram accounts.
Unlike many of my classmates, I don’t have parents in the medical field. And because of this, I automatically lose the built-in career advising that many of my classmates have already had access to, first as premeds and now as medical students. This also means that I don’t have the same connections with other physicians that my classmates may have access to through their parents. And while a phone call from Dad may immediately establish a classmate’s credibility with another doctor, I’m left to prove my worth through my own self-determination.
Now that I’m in my last year of medical school, I realize my white coat isn’t the equalizer I thought it would be. I know I haven’t had the same opportunities that many of my classmates have had. And while my background never will be an excuse for a sub-par performance, it will continue to set me apart from my classmates. Where I may struggle to relate to a classmate’s story of troubles with the family boat, I’ll always understand a patient’s worries about the only family car breaking down. When many of my classmates finish residency and enter private practice, I’ll begin my career as a military physician. Just like I wear second-hand clothes under my white coat, I’ll always carry my personal background into the medical profession with me.
I’m proud of my life experiences and I’m grateful for the different career path my background has given me. I consider myself privileged because I’ve experienced life in a way that most of my peers haven’t, enabling me to deliver better patient care for it. I’ve had to fight for my opportunities – and earned the privilege of serving America’s finest men and women in the military. It’s because of my background that I’m a stronger, more diverse, and more compassionate future physician. And that’s why I don’t mind wearing a second-hand blouse under my white coat.
Editor’s note: You can read AAMC’s fact sheet about paying for medical school through military service.
About Bonnie Mae Gillis
Bonnie Mae Gillis is a 4th year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine and is from rural Northwest Florida. She is also a recipient of the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program and hopes to practice Family Medicine in the Air Force someday. She is multiracial and loves finding the diversity in Alabama and in the Air Force.