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

Each time Georgia Wheadon went on social media during her first year at the University of Leeds, she’d feel a pang of loneliness.

By Jack Marshall
Monday, 13th June 2022, 4:55 am

It was 2016 and, as she scrolled past pictures of her friends from college or of her twin sister enjoying her own time away from home at the University of Liverpool, her situation seemed to become more and more stark.

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

“It’s pot-luck who you live with and I didn’t really have similar interests to my flatmates in first year,” 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 to put myself out there.

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Georgia Wheadon , Founder of Umii

“It was frustrating - I’d see my friends from college and my sister on Instagram having a great time and it just made me feel worse. My mental health really suffered and, by the time it got to Christmas in first year, I remember saying to my dad ‘I don’t want to go back.’”

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

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

And, what’s more, this is not only a loneliness epidemic which causes profound harm to those experiencing the isolation themselves, but one with a measurable economic impact too: each drop-out costs a university up to £27,750, the typical cost of a three-year degree.

UCLan students

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

Encouraged by friends and family to continue her pursuit of a degree in Human Geography and Sociology, Georgia was further buoyed by an impressive set of first- and second-year results. Then she landed a life-changing placement at start-up mentors Nova. It was there that she first encountered Umii.

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

“The placement itself really helped me to build some confidence and then, in third year, I joined the netball team and made some friends, which was good,” says Georgia. “It took quite a long time to get there but, had something like Umii been there sooner, I would have definitely had a better time at uni.

A UCLan student using Umii

“I almost felt robbed of that good social experience which everyone deserves to have at uni,” she adds. “That’s why I set Umii up, because I didn’t want anyone else to go through the loneliness and poor mental health that I had and which lots of students experience.

“Even before Covid, 50% of students admitted to feeling lonely and, since then, social anxiety has been at a high,” says Georgia, now 25 and living in Manchester. “A lot of people going to university now have missed out on that time going out, socialising before uni, making friends over summer, so it’s been a really strange experience for them.

“At freshers’ fairs, we get loads of second- and third-years coming up to us because some people haven’t been able to make friends properly because of the pandemic. Plus, now they're on blended learning courses which are part online and part in-person but which reduce opportunities to actually meet people.”

Allowing students to create their own bespoke, secure profile which is then verified by the university, Umii enables users to tailor their profile to include information on their course, their interests, and their membership of various societies so as to encourage more meaningful matches with other users.

A UCLan student using Umii

With users who are inactive for three months removed from the potential match pool, Georgia has developed Umii in order to reflect her belief in the importance of offering students a safe and easy way to connect and build social relationships at university.

And she’s recently brought her innovative method of initiating student connections, combating loneliness, increasing retention, and improving academic success to her home county after the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) signed up with her app.

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

“Supporting student friendships and creating a sense of belonging plays a big role in our union strategy,” says Zuleikha Chikh, President of the UCLan Students’ Union. “We believe loneliness has a negative impact on students staying at university and completing their courses.

“Providing opportunities for students to meet other like-minded students helps build a sense of belonging,” Zuleikha adds, with Umii also including contact details for relevant mental health and well-being resources specific to each student union or university involved with the app.

“As a member-based organisation that puts students first, we believe we have a big role to play to support this using all tools available to us.”

Zuleikha Chikh, UCLan Students' Union President

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

“The app matches you on course type and allows you to meet people you’d never otherwise come across,” she adds. “We want to make sure students are making real-life friendships away from the app: if someone makes a friend on Umii and doesn't need us anymore, that’s our job done.

“It’s lovely hearing stories of people making friends through Umii and having a good uni experience because of us,” continues Georgia. “It’s hard work, but if you see the ‘why’ behind why we’re doing it, it’s very rewarding.”

The future of Umii is all about growth so as to enable them to reach, connect, and help as many students as they can - a mission about which Georgia is uniquely passionate given her own personal experiences.

But she’s also wary of creating another potentially-harmful social media platform, too.

“We want to make sure we’re developing tech for good - we’re here to combat the issue of loneliness, not to become just another addictive social media platform,” Georgia explains. “I want Umii to act as a preventative measure to isolation and loneliness.

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