ECU’s newest class of medical students receive white coats

Lifelong dreams came one step closer to reality for the newest class of students in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University as they were officially welcomed during the school’s annual White Coat Ceremony on Friday.

The 90 members of the Class of 2027 — all North Carolina residents — were helped into their white coats during the traditional celebration at the Health Sciences Student Center and regaled with messages and well wishes from Brody faculty and leadership.

ECU's 2023 Brody Scholars, including Christian Smallwood, from left, Mohsen Zakaib, Hernandex Eduardo L. Castaneda, and Abigail E. Ulffers, pose in their white coats after the ceremony.

ECU’s 2023 Brody Scholars, including Christian Smallwood, from left, Mohsen Zakaib, Hernandez Eduardo L. Castaneda, and Abigail E. Ulffers, pose in their white coats after the ceremony.

Kristel McLawhorn, transplant nephrologist and 2005 Brody alumna, gave the keynote address, urging the Class of 2027 to stop, listen and absorb the knowledge and experiences they gain in the coming years.

“You have earned this opportunity,” McLawhorn said. “My charge to you is this: Be prepared for anything: to be challenged, to be afraid, to be humbled, to serve and to change. Know where your support is and know what is mission-critical in the big picture. Have the grace and wisdom to know when you don’t know, and the drive to do something about it.”

McLawhorn told the students that during her intern year at Brown University after she graduated from Brody, she got an early-morning phone call that her father was gravely ill. Knowing what she did about medicine, she jumped in her car and drove 700 miles south, knowing the odds were stacked against her father. But with her medical knowledge, she held out hope.

“My dad survived that event,” she shared, “and is actually sitting here with us today. Can you stand up?”

The crowd cheered and applauded as McLawhorn’s father, John Jernigan, stood and waved from the first row.

“I was clinically sound before; I left ECU with a strong base of medical knowledge, and I was working hard to hone and craft my skill at Brown,” she said. “But his illness taught me a great deal about life and even more about doctoring that no institution can teach you,” including empathy, ability to listen, sharpened knowledge and agile teamwork.

“My dad taught me that every day is a good day, and some days are better days,” McLawhorn said. “Today is one of the better days. It’s a marker in your life and education, a point at which you are living the consequences of your previous choices. You’ve worked hard for the opportunity.”

The Class of 2027, the largest class in Brody history, hails from 36 North Carolina counties and 26 undergraduate institutions; 61% of the class is female, 16% are first-generation college students, and 21% are from minority groups — Black, Native American and Hispanic or Latino — that the Association of American Medical Colleges considers “underrepresented in medicine.” Four are veterans, and four were collegiate student athletes. The class speaks a total of 23 languages.

Jason Higginson, executive dean of Brody, formally welcomed the class and voiced confidence in the students’ future contributions to medicine.

“Today we welcome you to the study and art of medicine, a profession symbolized by the white coat,” he said. “We know you will do great things.”

Onolunosen Abhulimen

Onolunosen Abhulimen­ — her family and friends call her Ono — doesn’t have time to wait for things to happen.

The Brinkley-Lane and early assurance student, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, graduated from high school in Winston-Salem with an associate’s degree under her belt — the first in her school to do so. Since she pioneered the path, other family members have followed in her wake, including her two younger brothers, who are also Brody Early Assurance students — one a sophomore and the other a junior. Her youngest brother will start fourth grade in the fall of 2023.

Onolunosen Abhulimen smiles as she receives her coat during a White Coat Ceremony on Friday.

Onolunosen Abhulimen smiles as she receives her coat during a White Coat Ceremony on Friday.

Abhulimen played basketball on her school team and a travel team. She did the same with track, where she ran the short distances. That wasn’t enough, though. She picked up the shot put and then the discus, which she fell in love with and would have broken the school record had the COVID-19 pandemic not shut sports down.

She excelled in the classroom as well. Having to navigate traditional high school classes, driving to the community college, and juggling sports and clubs taught her life lessons that would set her up for success in college: discipline, organization and commitment.

“It was hard for me to seek help, to ask for advice. There were some barriers that had to overcome,” Abhulimen said. “I definitely had to learn time management.”

During high school she knew she wanted to pursue some kind of medical career. She attended a medical student symposium at Wake Forest University and heard a presenter talk about health care disparities, which was a new concept for her. Investigation and research solidified her plans — she wanted to be a doctor, enough so that during her undergrad years at ECU she founded a Students for Equitable Health Outcomes organization.

“I want a leadership role, to use my experience in helping those in rural communities get better health outcomes,” Abhulimen said.

Because she graduated high school with a pocketful of college credits, she was able to graduate from ECU summa cum laude in December 2022 with a degree in biology with honors in five semesters. She’ll start her first year of medical school at 21— most of her peers who will be a few years older — and after a semester’s break that she used to get her head in the game.

“I wanted to make sure I was really prepared and I was familiar with people that I could seek help and advice from. Brody is a very welcoming environment where it’s easy to ask for help or advice from other students,” Abhulimen said.

When she donned the white coat for the first time it was with pride and a sense of accomplishment. And her family beamed from the audience — her parents, all three brothers and a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins.

“It’s a representation of everything I’ve had to do to get to this point, even before high school. All the sacrifices that I made, being able to really study for those hard classes, some of the all-nighters I had to pull — I’m finally here,” Abhulimen said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air. I’m starting a new journey.”

Jose Robles Arvizu

Learning to navigate opportunity has given one first-year medical student a layered perspective from which to change the lives of his future patients.

Jose Robles Arvizu was born in Rio Verde San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and moved to Hendersonville when he was 2 years old. Over the years, he observed the challenges facing those around him and started formulating plans to make improvements in his community.

Jose Robles Arvizu joins the Brody School of Medicine after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees, respecitvely, from the University of North Carolina at and Wake Forest University.

Jose Robles Arvizu joins the Brody School of Medicine after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees, respecitvely, from the University of North Carolina at and Wake Forest University.

“Growing up, I saw how people in my marginalized communities, particularly farm workers and migrant farm workers, were often spectators in their health needs as a result of their lifestyle and barriers to accessing health care,” Robles Arvizu said. “I knew there had to be something I could do to bridge this gap and empower these communities to become stake holders in their health and make it a priority. This fueled my desire to become a physician with the goal of returning to western North Carolina to make a positive impact in the communities in the place I call home.”

He later attended UNC–Chapel Hill as a first-generation undergraduate, then went to Wake Forest to get his master’s in biomedical sciences, research track.

“One of the things that I am most excited about is being part of the incoming Brody class is becoming a member of a larger family that has a common goal of improving the health of communities across North Carolina,” he said. “Even within the last few days getting to know more people, it is more evident that we all have a ton in common, and I’m excited to embark on this journey with the rest of my classmates.”

Robles Arvizu has come to view education as a lifelong opportunity that can benefit those around him, making health care — and education — more accessible.

“Being a first-generation college and medical student brings both challenges and opportunities,” he said. “I would aim to use my experience as a first-generation student to advocate for others in similar situations. Understanding the unique challenges faced by first-generation students, I could contribute to making the education system more inclusive and accessible.”

Because of his motivation and perseverance, Robles Arvizu was named a Gates Millennium Scholar. The program, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provides a full scholarship to any undergraduate institution to students from underrepresented groups. The scholarship also covers master’s and doctoral studies in the disciplines of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics public health, and the sciences, where these groups are severely underrepresented.

“Being named a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship one of the largest blessings that allowed me to peruse my dream of becoming a physician without the immense financial barrier that many first-gen students encounter,” he said.

As he begins medical school, Robles Arvizu plans to use his life experiences to be empathetic to his future patients’ barriers and circumstances.

“Having faced my own challenges and adversities, I would use these experiences to relate to my patients and their struggles,” he said. “This empathy would help me provide better care and make a positive impact on my patients’ lives.”

Grant Irons

The Class of 2027 includes a student whose family has already built a legacy in eastern North Carolina health care.

Grant Irons is the great-grandson of regional health care pioneers Fred and Malene Irons and the grandson of Tom Irons, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Brody, medical director of Access East and the N.C. Agromedicine Institute, and interim medical director of physician assistant studies.

Tom Irons, left, smiles as he stands with his grandson, Thomas Grant Irons III, after receiving his white coat Friday.

Tom Irons, left, smiles as he stands with his grandson, Thomas Grant Irons III, after receiving his white coat Friday.

Grant Irons was born and raised in Greenville and attended UNC–Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in biology with minors in chemistry and health and society.

“It is truly humbling to carry on my family’s legacy here in eastern North Carolina,” he said. “I was lucky enough to spend time with my great-grandparents, Drs. Fred and Malene Irons. As I’ve grown up, I continue to learn more about their work and the impact they had on health infrastructure in eastern North Carolina. Their legacy demonstrates the impact of servant leadership. My late grandmother and grandfather, better known as Carol Irons and Dr. Tom Irons, continued this tradition of selfless service. I would not be the man I am today without their guidance as I aim to hold myself to their standard; a life lived with compassion, and humility.”

Tom Irons said he could not be prouder of his grandson’s desire to serve as a physician.

“I’m Grant’s only living grandparent, but I like to believe that today the other three are wearing smiles as big as mine,” he said. “His parents and I could not be more grateful that he has been given this opportunity, or prouder that he has chosen to come to Brody and eastern North Carolina.” 

He added that he encourages his grandson and Grant’s classmates to follow their hearts.

“There is nothing easy about this journey you have undertaken, but if you put your heart into it, the rewards will be immeasurable,” he said. “Keep your head down these first two years, lean on each other, ask for help when you need it and never forget that there is no life more noble than a life of service.”

Grant is eager to live out a legacy and mirror his grandfather’s ideals and impact in medicine — but he is also ready to make his own name through the medical school that represents a life goal.

“The opportunity to be a student at Brody means the world to me; it has been a dream of mine for some time,” he said.

Grant Irons sees the bigger picture of eastern North Carolina’s health care landscape and also plans to make a difference through policy.

“Regardless of my career path, I have long been interested in health policy,” he said. “Initially, I was exposed to the importance of institutions through my family. Since I was old enough to understand, I have been fortunate enough to learn about care disparities and their impact on health outcomes.”

As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Irons explored the relationship between power, policy and differential health outcomes. He helped lead a chapter of PIH-Engage, a global health organization dedicated to building sustainable health infrastructure. That experience has led him to lead on a variety of fronts.

“As a physician I want to be more than a care provider; I hope to be a leader in my community,” he said. “While significant progress has and continues to be made, care expansion efforts are far from over. There are far too many people still in need.”

Lachlan Younce

Something about home — both places and people — helps to decide our futures for us.

Lachlan Younce is about as eastern North Carolina as a guy could get. His father’s family is from Belhaven and his mother’s is from Vanceboro. He played football and lacrosse at J.H. Rose high school in Greenville. He was a sailing counselor at a YMCA camp in Arapahoe, on the Neuse River, which will become important to his story.

At the camp he made friends with another counselor, a young man who ran a lot and worked out. Younce asked his friend why he was so fanatical. The answer — he was getting ready for the U.S. Naval Academy. Younce isn’t from a military family and had no idea what that meant but got very interested.

Younce applied for an appointment to the Academy and received one from the late Representative Walter B. Jones, who Younce recalls fondly. His initial attempt to get into Annapolis didn’t work out, so after graduation he headed west to Raleigh where he was part of the ROTC program at N.C. State, which he said was a blessing because he learned about military culture, which was completely foreign.

The next year his fortune changed and the Navy accepted him as a Midshipman.

Like many young men entering the academy, Younce wanted to be a pilot. He had his mind on studying political science; instead he took his first physics class, majored in chemistry and applied to the medical corps track.

He graduated in May 2023 as an ensign, and the Navy told him he could apply to any medical school in the country. He applied to three, but there was only one he really wanted to receive an acceptance letter from.

“I had the best interview experience here at Brody, I just felt like I was at home. This community raised me, built me and I think that learning medicine here is going to be extremely rewarding,” Younce said.

He’s not completely sure about what specialization he might pursue after graduation, but Brody’s mission of educating the next generations of primary care physicians impresses him.

I had the best interview experience here at Brody, I just felt like I was at home. This community raised me, built me and I think that learning medicine here is going to be extremely rewarding."
- Lachlan Younce, first year medical student


“I think it’s great that a school so oriented towards primary care can train a physician to go into the military and provide care that service members need,” Younce said.

The winding route that brought him home means more than just place. Health care is a thread that is beginning to be woven into the fabric of his family. His mother is a registered nurse with ECU Health and a proud Pirate Nurse. His sister, Fallon Younce, has a year and a half until she graduates from the College of Nursing as a Pirate nurse herself.

“We’re going to be able to overlap these two years, and one thing I’ve learned is that nurses know what’s going on, so I’m going to use nurses’ knowledge to be successful,” Younce said.

After graduation, he’ll owe the Navy a number of years as an active-duty Navy doctor, which he is excited for, but is ultimately unsure about a career in uniform. Regardless of when is his time in uniform ends, he’s sure he’ll return to eastern North Carolina to use his Brody training to improve access to health care in underserved areas.

The Brody School of Medicine Class of 2027.

The Brody School of Medicine Class of 2027.