Jennifer Badger has always wanted to be a nurse.

Her mom is a nurse, too, and her dad recently retired as a fire department lieutenant in her hometown of North Attleborough, Mass.

“So I’ve just really been around first responders and caring my whole life,” said Badger, 22, who recently graduated from Keene State College’s nursing program. “Being able to help someone who’s in their most time of need is something that’s always been appealing to me.”

But she never imagined she would begin her nursing career in the middle of a pandemic.

“Obviously being a new grad in general, I’m going to have new-grad jitters, but more especially now that all of us, our whole class, is going to be starting during a pandemic,” she said.

Badger is one of 13 nursing students who graduated last month from Keene State. Nerves aside, she is eager to apply her education and join the fight against COVID-19.

“I’m ready to just jump right in and do what I need to do,” Badger said. “... I’m ready to be there, do the testing, help the patients that are on the [ventilators]. I’m ready to jump in for it. I’m kind of biting at the bit for it.”

Badger is set to begin working as an emergency room nurse in Providence, R.I., in early August. Her classmate, Rebecca Putnam, wants to find a nursing job in an intensive care unit.

“The problem with that right now is the ICUs are filled with COVID patients, so they need nurses with experience and don’t have time to train a novice nurse who just graduated,” said Putnam, 22, of Ipswich, Mass. “So I don’t know if I’ll be able to get in there right away.”

For now, Putnam is working a part-time job at Milton Caterpillar in Londonderry, where she screens employees for COVID-19 symptoms.

“It’s interesting with nursing, now there’s all these jobs that never existed before,” such as people at workplaces conducting screenings, Putnam said. “So it’s just different jobs. I’m taking whatever I can get, whatever experience.”

It’s certainly not what Putnam envisioned for her first nursing job, but she said she’s happy to play a small part in fighting the pandemic, and is ready to find a full-time hospital job.

“I think a lot of us are very eager to help, to get out there,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of older nurses that are tired and that are ready to retire after the end of this. So a lot of us, we’re not totally scared by it. We’re ready to get that protective equipment on and get in there and help.”

Emily Twitchell, a 26-year-old Antrim resident, recently graduated with her nursing degree from River Valley Community College, which had a total of 40 nursing students in the class of 2020. She shares Badger’s and Putnam’s enthusiasm to enter the profession, but has struggled to find work in her desired specialty: the operating room.

“You’d think that it would be easier to find a job,” Twitchell said. “You’d think that this would open up opportunities. You’d think they’d be dying for nurses. But actually it’s been a little harder as elective procedures and appointments and all of those things have stopped.”

As these sorts of jobs start to return, Twitchell is hopeful she’ll find work soon. When she does find a full-time position, she will be nervous about potentially being exposed to the virus, which she could then transmit to her family.

“But that’s also kind of what we signed up for,” she said.

“Basically [I want to do] what we signed up to do when we decided to be nurses, which is helping your patients no matter the risk to yourself,” Twitchell continued. “I mean, we don’t want to be hurt, we don’t want to bring anything to our families, but we also, we want to help people who are dealing with something that we don’t know a whole lot about yet. They’re as scared as we are. So I think bringing people hope during that is a lot more important to me than worrying.”

But even new nurses are prepared for such challenges, said Denise Ruby, who chairs the nursing department at River Valley.

“When you work in health care, you do get used to that in some ways because we do get patients with [tuberculosis], we do get patients with MRSA, we end up with quite a few different diseases that you’re exposed to all the time if you’re working in health care,” Ruby said.

Patricia Shinn, director of nursing at Keene State, also said recent college graduates are ready for whatever their nursing careers bring.

“We’re sure that they’re prepared,” Shinn said. “They learn how to use PPE early in the program. And they really have had a good education at Keene. It’s so well rounded with the liberal arts. They’re good thinkers.”

And whatever changes to the health care system result from the COVID-19 pandemic, Putnam said she and her peers in the class of 2020 will be there to lead the way.

“I think a lot of us are really excited to be new nurses and to be a part of shaping the future of our medical system, and being a part of whatever changes we need now that this big event is happening in the world.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.