Friendship Forged During COVID Fall of 2020 Carries Eight Students Through College

Eight people pose for a group photo while sitting on a picnic table outside of a building. Image by Ed Brennen
Graduating seniors, from left, Brian Nanje, Jonas Flores, Avijay Ghosh, Jabar Maiyaki, Marvin Owusu, Chioke Onwuogu, Jordanny Peralta and Ayoub Ziad met on campus as first-year students during the pandemic.

By Ed Brennen

Maybe they would have become best friends regardless — eight business and mechanical engineering majors, mostly from Massachusetts, drawn together by their love of sports and video games, all driven to land career-building internships and co-ops.
But the fact that they met as first-year students at UMass Lowell in the fall of 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, most classes were held virtually and the 800 students who lived on campus had to mask up and stay socially distanced — created an unquestionably unique bond.
“I don’t think we would have been as close if we hadn’t met during the pandemic,” says Jordanny Peralta, a senior business major from Salem, Massachusetts. “Going through that experience really brought us together.”
Peralta lived at University Suites, one of four residence halls open on campus that fall, with fellow first-year students Jabar Maiyaki, Chioke Onwuogu and Jonas Flores.
“We would walk around knocking on doors saying, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That was the only way we were going to meet people, since everyone was kind of stuck in their rooms,” Peralta says.
Their circle quickly grew to include USuites neighbors Avijay Ghosh, Brian Nanje and Marvin Owusu. Ayoub Ziad, who lived at Leitch Hall, met a few of the students through a Class of 2024 Facebook group and was soon part of the crew. 
“It was kind of hard to meet people at first, but luckily I ran into them and we just clicked,” says Nanje, a business major from Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“We tried to make the most of our time and just have fun together,” adds Onwuogu, a business major from Peabody, Massachusetts, and the unofficial ringleader of the group. “We would find things that we could do during COVID, like go golfing together.”
A group of people talk while walking on a plaza outside a building. Image by Ed Brennen
Six of the eight friends are business majors in the Manning School of Business, while two are mechanical engineering majors in the Francis College of Engineering.

When COVID restrictions began to lift and intramural sports resumed on campus in the fall of 2021, the eight friends formed a team and joined basketball, soccer and flag football leagues. They called themselves “As Per Usual” and won the Intramural Cup as the top overall team in 2023.
“We’re just winners. We have to keep it up, as per usual,” explains a smiling Maiyaki, an accounting student from Salem, Massachusetts, who knew Peralta in high school.
Ziad, a mechanical engineering major from Holbrook, Massachusetts, says playing sports together strengthened their bond.
“It’s nice when you’re studying all week and can look forward to having some physical activity to get your mind off of things for a bit. And you’re doing it with your friends, which makes it even more fun,” says Ziad, who is also captain of the men’s club soccer team. 
Five of the friends — Ghosh, Onwuogu, Owusu, Nanje and Maiyaki — started as computer science majors.
“It was cool because we would take our online classes together and then study together,” says Owusu, who is from New Britain, Connecticut. 
But as sophomores, all five switched majors to business — maintaining a bond that “kept us together,” Nanje says.
When Onwuogu and Nanje enrolled in the Professional Co-op Program, learning the résumé-writing and interview skills that would help them land paid career experience, Onwuogu pushed the others to follow suit.
A group of 10 people pose for a photo while holding up white T-shirts. Image by Campus Recreation
Forming the team "As Per Usual" with several other classmates, the friends played intramural basketball, soccer, flag football and more - and won the Intramural Cup in 2023.

“I wasn’t too interested in the internship thing, and then Chioke started telling me to apply for these opportunities,” says Peralta, who got an internship at Big Four accounting firm PwC — where he will begin working full time after graduation. 
“I don’t think I would be in this position if I didn’t have these friends,” he says.
Ghosh, whose concentrations were in management information systems (MIS) and accounting, also accepted a job at PwC after graduation.
“It feels great,” says Ghosh, a first-generation college student from Washington, D.C., who came to UML through the DC-CAP Scholars Program. “My parents are proud. None of my friends from back home went to college. It’s a blessing to be here.”
Inspired by his friends, Owusu took on a consulting externship last summer with PwC through the online platform Paragon One. 
“It helped having friends who were getting internships at the same time and growing their careers. I would probably have been a little lost trying to figure it out myself,” says Owusu, who is looking to land a job as a cybersecurity consultant.
A person smiles for a photo while a face covering is pulled down from his mouth outside of a building. Image by Ed Brennen
Mechanical engineering major Jonas Flores stops for a photo outside of University Suites in October of 2020, when only about 800 students were living on campus.

Flores, a mechanical engineering major from Grafton, Massachusetts, secured a systems engineering internship last summer at Brooks Automation in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. 
“I’m so happy I chose UMass Lowell,” says Flores, a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Leaders in Action student organization. “I’ve definitely made a better network here than I would have at another school.”
Maiyaki is going to work at international accounting firm RSM, where he interned last summer. A first-generation college student who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria when he was 10 years old, he originally thought he would transfer to a higher-ranked school after his first year at UML. He’s glad he stuck around.
“I was in University Crossing the other day and saw the huge banner that says ‘No. 1 public school in Massachusetts,’ and it was such a good feeling,” he says. “I sent a picture of it to my mom and dad, and they were like, ‘Your hard work paid off.’”
Nanje has done information technology internships at Vestmark and Symbotic and is pursuing a master’s degree in information technology through the Bachelor’s-to-Master’s Program.
Ziad, who is originally from Algeria, had an internship and co-op at motion and control technology company Parker Hannifin and is eyeing a career in automation.
“For a school with so many students, it’s very easy to meet people at UMass Lowell,” says Ziad, a member of the Muslim Student Association. A “shy” person by nature, Ziad credits his friends with helping him break out of his shell. 
“We put ourselves out there and became the best version of ourselves,” he says.
As for the ringleader Onwuogu, whose concentrations were in marketing and MIS, he has already started working as a market intelligence representative at Similarweb, a data analytics firm in Burlington, Massachusetts.
“UMass Lowell has given me a good community. They make sure you are ready for life after school,” says Onwuogu, who serves as a student alumni ambassador and residential advisor. He also belongs to the Association of Students of African Origin, Leaders in Action and the Real Estate Network Association. 
While they have scattered across campus over the past three years, the bond that the eight friends formed during that surreal fall of 2020 is carrying them through to Commencement — and beyond. As they prepare to graduate, several of them are hoping to live together in the Boston area as they begin their careers. 
“It was a hard time,” Ghosh says of the pandemic. “You had to wear masks everywhere, and a lot of places were closed. But it was so fun. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything because of the community I had around me.”
Peralta looks back on the period as an “exciting” time.
“It was our first year in college, so we didn't want to miss out. We wanted to be on campus,” he says. “There were a lot of restrictions, but we were figuring everything out on our own. It was exciting because there wasn’t as much to do, so we found stuff to do and tried to meet as many people as we could.”
“Everyone was dealing with the same thing, which was obviously nothing any of us had experienced before,” Maiyaki adds. “Just being there for each other made it easier.”