UNH nursing graduation

Laura Howard, 22, of Jaffrey, is graduating from the University of New Hampshire on Saturday and plans to hit the COVID-19 front lines at Exeter Hospital.

Seventy nursing students will be graduating virtually from the University of New Hampshire on Saturday morning and as they enter their first jobs, they will be on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a different world out there for new graduates,” said Gene Harkless, chair of the nursing department at UNH.

Harkless, who is also an associate professor of nursing, has 40 years of experience under her belt. She thinks the new graduates are as prepared as they can be to face the challenges they will be presented with.

“It’s really important to understand that nursing is a public charge,” Harkless said. “We have both an obligation to serve and we understand the foundations of infectious disease control.”

One of the graduating students hitting the front lines is Laura Howard, 22, of Jaffrey. She has been hired to work in the medical surgical unit at Exeter Hospital, where she will interact with patients who may require more advanced heart monitoring if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Howard has clocked more than 900 hours of clinical experience over the past three years.

In her senior year, Howard was immersed in a program in the North Country, where she gained experience in the emergency department at Littleton Regional Healthcare.

She says that experience with patient interaction will help her feel more comfortable as she starts her career in the midst of a pandemic where approximately 3,300 people in the state have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 10 percent of those individuals were hospitalized.

“I’m so excited to be a nurse. It’s nerve-wracking, kind of coming into it during this pandemic, but I am so excited,” Howard said.

Howard said she and her classmates have been talking about the mental and emotional strains they may feel as they step into their new roles.

“It’s definitely kind of a hot topic right now for all of us and we’ve all been processing at different times, in different ways,” she said. “I think some of the main concerns, and some of my own concerns, are being separated for a long time from our families. Once you are in the medical field and you step onto that unit, and you have been exposed, you aren’t able to go home and visit your family or your friends.”

There are currently 310 students in the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at UNH. In an expansion that was planned to help serve the state’s aging population prior to the pandemic, there will be room for 100 undergraduate students per year in the nursing program starting this fall.

The virtual celebration for UNH students scheduled to graduate will air live on the college’s Facebook page starting at 10 a.m. Saturday.

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