Umii: Lancashire entrepreneur creates groundbreaking friendship app for university students after struggling with mental health herself

It was 2016, and as she scrolled through pictures of her college friends or her twin sister enjoying her free time at the University of Liverpool, her situation seemed to be getting more and more difficult.

“I never really found my kind of people in Leeds,” says Georgia, from Barnoldswick in East Lancashire. “It didn’t help that I went from being a very tight-knit group of friends and with my twin sister all the time to feeling completely alone in a university of 30,000 students.

“It’s lucky who you live with and I didn’t really have the same interests as my freshman roommates,” she adds. “I didn’t find my type of people and because I struggled, my confidence suffered. I became isolated and lonely, which made it harder for me to express myself.

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Georgia Wheadon, founder of Umii

“It was frustrating – I was seeing my friends from college and my sister on Instagram having a good time and it made me feel even worse. My mental health really suffered and by the time Christmas came in first year , I remember saying to my father: “I don’t want to go back”.

Unfortunately, Georgia’s situation is far from abnormal. Recent research from the University of Cambridge shows that 75% of students feel lonely on a regular basis, while a student survey found that one in six students say they have no ‘real friends’ at university .

According to the most recent data from the 2018/19 academic year, around 7% of students drop out of university, but there are well-founded fears that the impact of the pandemic on the mainstream social student experience will have seen this figure heading towards 10% since.

And, what’s more, it’s not just an epidemic of loneliness causing profound harm to those who experience isolation themselves, but also a measurable economic impact: every dropout costs a university up to £27,750, the typical cost of a three-year degree.

UCLan students

Luckily, Georgia is using her first-hand experiences to do something about it.

Encouraged by her friends and family to continue her studies in human geography and sociology, Georgia was further energized by an impressive set of first and second year results. Then she landed a life-changing placement with mentors at startup Nova. It was there that she first met Umii.

A then-prototype app designed to help students make social connections, Umii immediately caught Georgia’s attention. After the original developer decided to take a step back, she jumped at the chance to take on the project herself as director after graduating in 2019 due to her own first-hand experiences. with loneliness.

“The placement itself really helped me gain confidence, and then in third grade I joined the netball team and made some friends, which was good,” Georgia says. “It took a long time to get there, but if something like Umii had been around earlier, I definitely would have had a better time in college.

A UCLan student using Umii

“I almost felt deprived of that good social experience that everyone deserves to have in college,” she adds. “That’s why I created Umii, because I didn’t want anyone else to go through the loneliness and poor mental health that I had and that a lot of students go through.

“Even before Covid, 50% of students admitted to feeling lonely and since then social anxiety has been at its height,” says Georgia, now 25 and living in Manchester. “A lot of people who go to college have missed that opportunity to get out, to socialize before college, to make friends over the summer, so it’s been a really weird experience for them.

“At freshman fairs, we get loads of second and third years coming to us because some people haven’t been able to make friends properly because of the pandemic. Additionally, they now take blended learning courses that are partly online and partly in-person, but reduce the opportunities to meet people.

Allowing students to create their own bespoke and secure profile which is then verified by the university, Umii allows users to customize their profile to include information about their course, interests and membership in various companies to encourage more meaningful matches with other users.

A UCLan student using Umii

With users inactive for three months removed from the pool of potential matches, Georgia developed Umii to reflect its belief in the importance of providing students with a safe and easy way to connect and socialize at school. university.

And she recently brought her innovative method for initiating student relationships, tackling loneliness, increasing retention and improving academic achievement to her home county after the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) signed up for her application.

Following a highly successful four-month pilot program with the UCLan Students’ Union in 2020, which helped create 2,000 online connections and initiated nearly 6,000 student conversations, SU jumped on the opportunity to offer Umii to students. So far, the feedback has been glowing.

“Supporting student friendships and creating a sense of belonging plays an important role in our union strategy,” says Zuleikha Chikh, President of the UCLan Students’ Union. “We believe that loneliness has a negative impact on students who stay in college and complete their courses.

“Providing students with opportunities to meet other like-minded students helps create a sense of belonging,” adds Zuleikha, Umii also including contact information for relevant mental health and wellness resources specific to each student union or university involved in the application.

“As a member-based organization that puts students first, we believe we have a big role to play in supporting this using all the tools at our disposal.”

Zuleikha Chikh, President of the UCLan Students’ Union

“Working on the app has been the best but craziest experience of my life,” says Georgia, with Umii now in use at 10 universities in the UK. “I’ve never been involved in a start-up before, so it can be pretty overwhelming, but it’s also amazing for someone like me to be able to go out and talk to students and get feedback.

“The app matches you on the type of course and allows you to meet people you would never have met otherwise,” she adds. “We want to make sure that students make real friendships outside of the app: if someone makes a friend on Umii and doesn’t need us anymore, that’s our job.

“It’s nice to hear stories of people making friends through Umii and having a good college experience through us,” Georgia continues. “It’s hard work, but if you see the ‘why’ behind why we do it, it’s very rewarding.”

The future of Umii is about growing to enable them to reach, connect and help as many students as possible – something Georgia is particularly passionate about given her own personal experiences.

But she’s also wary of creating yet another potentially harmful social media platform.

“We want to make sure we’re building the technology for good – we’re here to tackle the issue of loneliness, not just become another addictive social media platform,” Georgia says. “I want Umii to act as a preventive measure against isolation and loneliness.

“We’re here to give students a place to build lasting peer relationships,” she adds. “And I’m delighted we’re launching here in Lancashire.”