LOWELL — When Marlene Perez signed up to be a personal care assistant to a fellow student with muscular dystrophy at UMass Lowell she thought it would be a great resume booster to help further her nursing career.
She had no idea it would turn into one of the most meaningful friendships she has ever had.
“It was so unexpected,” Perez of Lawrence said about her friendship with fellow student Janelle Diaz from Woburn.
The two graduated from UMass Lowell yesterday. Diaz received her graduate degree in community social psychology and Perez received her undergraduate degree in nursing.
The friendship began with just a simple email. Three years ago, Diaz was looking for a personal care assistant and UMass Lowell helped with that search.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Perez said.
As a personal care assistant, Perez helps Diaz with everyday tasks such as fixing her hair and carrying her books to class. Perez drives a special wheelchair accessible van so Diaz can get around campus.
Over time, the working relationship blossomed into something deeper.
“We help each other. That’s what people don’t know. I don’t just help her,” Perez said.
“I can tell the difference between when somebody cares just because it’s their job or because they genuinely care,” Diaz said. “She cares for the right reasons. As time went on, you confide in each other and build a trust.”
Diaz says when she introduces Perez she always puts emphasis on their friendship first.
“I always say she is my friend who happens to be my PCA (personal care assistant),” she said.
Perez is not Diaz’s only personal care assistant on campus.
“I have others and I get along with them, but I am no where near as close with them as I am with her,” she said.
Perez said Diaz has taught her the importance of having a positive outlook on life.
“She has such a positive attitude. She’s an inspiration to me. She has been through a lot,” she said. “Everyone on this campus knows this girl and you can’t find one person to say one negative thing about her.”
Diaz, who also went to UMass Lowell for her undergraduate degree, said the university was one of the only schools that would accommodate her needs.
“I had good grades in high school so I had a plethora of state schools to choose from, but when I would visit they would see me as a burden not a contributor.”
During her academic career, Diaz was a member of several after-school activities including forming the organization Disable the Label.
“UMass Lowell taught me I am stronger than I thought I was. Living on campus was a huge step for me,” she said. “It taught me to be independent.”
Perez, 22, said her now alma mater taught her confidence.
“I know I can be a leader now,” she said.
She was a member of the organization Bringing Diversity to Nursing, three honor societies and volunteers at a local Lowell shelter.
“I have always liked volunteering and giving back to the community. It has always been a part of me,” she said.
She choose UMass Lowell because her brother encouraged her to.
“I was thinking about going to New York or something. I am so glad I didn’t,” she said.
She has plans on being a traveling nurse.
Whatever is in store for the two soon to be graduates, Perez and Diaz know they will have each other in the future.
They have also been busy planning Diaz’s wedding to her high school sweetheart.
“Oh, she has been bringing me everywhere, to get her dress, everything,” Perez said.
“I will do the same for you,” Diaz said “That won’t be for awhile,” Perez quipped.
Jimmy Ortiz was also another local student who overcame obstacles while at UMass Lowell.
Ortiz went there thinking he would be leaving the institution with a degree in computer engineering.
Yesterday he earned a degree in psychology and a better understanding of himself.
“I found myself at UMass Lowell,” he said.
Ortiz moved to Lawrence at the age of 11 after his parents divorced. He applied to five colleges and got into four of them. He picked UMass Lowell because it was affordable. During his sophomore year, his father was murdered by a family friend.
“It turned my world upside down,” he said.
The murder of his father made him question almost everything in his life.
“It was so unexpected,” he said. “I lost my trust in everything.”
That wasn’t the only thing he was questioning. At the time, he was still in the closet about being gay.
“I had to rebuild myself,” he said
The 23-year-old said it was the support he got from the community at UMass Lowell that got him through the tough times.
“They taught me to be my true authentic self,” he said.
He was so inspired by UMass Lowell that he hopes to inspire other college students as a career. He is going on to graduate school to work in higher education.
“I want to work with students from diverse backgrounds and make them feel welcomed like I felt welcomed here,” he said.
Ortiz has organized dozens of student activities, co-founded the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir and, as a diversity peer educator, taught fellow students to embrace and celebrate people of different backgrounds. In January, the university honored him with a Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award for his commitment to social justice issues. He received a Chancellor’s Medal for Student Service for his impressive work toward enhancing campus life.
He believes had he gone to another school, he wouldn’t have gotten the support he got at UMass Lowell.
“The community here is just so supportive of everyone even when they don’t have to be,” he said.