The 150 students who received white coats at a ceremony Saturday are much too young to be doctors, but they're on the right path.
The students, from pre-kindergarten through high school, received the coats because they completed the annual Saturday Science Academy at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles.
For a total of more than six months, the students woke up early every Saturday to attend classes on anatomy and dissection, urban ecology, astronomy and math.
"The purpose of this ceremony is to inspire students to a lifelong commitment to learning," said Dr. Gail Orum-Alexander, dean of the university's College of Science and Health. Others who attended the ceremony included state Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) and Mervyn M. Dymally, the former California lieutenant governor and U.S. congressman who is now leading a new health institute at the university.
Orum-Alexander said that the students were recognized for their hard work throughout the program's three eight-week sessions, plus a four-week summer session focusing on math, and that the white coats, though a bit smaller than those of real doctors, symbolize integrity, compassion, dedication and a commitment to serving others.
Many of the students have attended the Saturday Science Academy several times during the nine years since it began in its current form.
"Since the fourth grade I've been mastering the cardiovascular system, and I think it's pretty cool that there's blood all over my body," Danielle Divinity, a freshman at Westchester High School, told the crowd of students, parents and university officials during the ceremony at King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Willowbrook.
In a later interview, Danielle said she was drawn to the program because she was fascinated by medicine and doctors. She now dreams of becoming a child psychiatrist.
In addition to attending three hours of classes each Saturday morning, Danielle said she went on several field trips, including whale watching and a visit to an aquarium.
Program Director Lorraine Grey said the students, who come from schools as far away as Oceanside, must demonstrate an interest in science before they are enrolled in the academy. The program aims to give minority youths of all incomes, ages 4 to 18, "the opportunity to realize their dreams of becoming physicians, scientists or engineers," Grey said.
"These students pledge to treasure what they have learned and to continue their quest of one day becoming dedicated physicians," she said.
Monae Winbush, 39, said she has noticed improvements in her 11-year-old daughter's study habits and grades since she was enrolled in the academy last year.
Winbush said she sent her daughter, Clarke, to several tutors in past years, but what she liked about the Saturday Science Academy was the small class sizes and focus on parent involvement.
She said she also liked that the program offered preparation for the SAT college-entrance exam.
"She struggled a lot," Winbush said of her daughter. "She's an A student now, where she used to be a B or C. . . . She's a math whiz now."