leeds.tech / features

Meeting Up With Georgia Wheadon

Georgia Wheadon founded the Umii app, developed to combat student loneliness and isolation. She tells us more:

Umii was the result of the difficult university experiences of gen z and millennial students across the UK, including mine. Like 50% of the student population, I struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation. I didn’t click with my flat-mates in my first year, and I was on a joint honours course with only 4 other students. I found it really hard to build friendships with people like me outside of my course and accommodation. My confidence and mental health took a real hit, and although I loved my degree at Leeds University, I was very close to dropping out.

I had noticed that face to face introductions were becoming very rare amongst gen z and millennial students. We do everything on our phones now; we order taxis, do our shopping and find relationships, all without ever actually speaking to someone. Students now find people coming up to them in the union or a cafe kind of strange and, vice versa, students are afraid to make the first move and put themselves out there. This means that less meaningful friendships are being formed.

I kind of felt robbed of the social side of university and this really impacted my whole experience. This is why I became so passionate about solving this problem – I just don’t want anyone else to have the same experience as I did.

Where did the app development skills come from?

As part of my Human Geography and Sociology course, I spent time analysing human trends and behaviour patterns, and began to really feel more passionate about how the negative experiences felt by people can really impact on their studies and long-term success.

Before Umii I worked as a Product Manager at Nova in Liverpool. Nova is a digital startup company and is now a Co-founder and investor in Umii. Here I learnt the skills around building a product and how to run a lean and agile startup.

However, I am still developing my skills and every day is a learning experience for me. I have had to learn how to pitch for investment, manage finances, make sales, market an app and lots more. But I have an amazing team who help me and we have all made great progress over the past couple of years, including our recent win at the Prolific North Tech Awards for App of the Year!

Why do you think loneliness is so pervasive amongst students?

A big part of how I felt at uni was because there wasn’t an easy way for me to meet people outside of my accommodation and course. Students are often limited to a very small group of people in their flat, and if they don’t click there aren’t many other options.

There are also over 50,000 undergraduate courses out there at the moment – with a lot of students choosing joint honours degrees. This means that there is now less potential for repeat meetings and opportunities to grow close to a tight-knit group. My Joint Honours course meant that I was running from lecture to lecture with different people at every session – there was less consistency. By the time I made it back to one class the following week, the single honours students had formed friendship groups. This situation could make it more challenging for some people to strike up conversations and make friends.

As well as this, students often use Facebook and Whatsapp groups to connect with each other, but building friendships in these groups can be difficult. There are so many different, unofficial groups to choose from and for less-outgoing students, posting a message (to what can sometimes be up to 500 students) can be intimidating. There is also limited safeguarding – anyone can pose as a student!

Do you think more students are lonely now than they were a couple of years ago?

Yes, 100%! Covid has had a real impact here. In a survey by WONKHE and Trendence, it was found that in October 2020 the proportion of students who felt lonely daily or weekly had grown to 50% since 2019 (39%).

Even before the pandemic, face to face introductions were daunting. With the social restrictions put in place due to covid, students were forced into covid bubbles and prevented from socialising, which is bound to have a lasting impact.

Loneliness is not influenced by the number of connections we have, but by the quality of these connections. One issue we have in the modern world is that social media has created unrealistic expectations for our social lives. We don’t want Umii to do this; we want to keep it simple to prevent this from happening and encourage students to take their connections into the real world where they can strengthen.

How does Umii aim to reduce loneliness?

Umii acts as a preventative measure to loneliness by providing a safe place for students to develop meaningful friendships. The app connects students with people across campus, who they may have never met before, based on things like their interests, course types and society preferences.

We aim to reduce the number of people who feel lonely at university by being there from the beginning. By making it as easy as possible for a student to meet people like them, Umii is there before a student even starts ever feeling lonely.

What do you hope the impact of Umii will be over the next few years?

We are already making an impact on the lives of students, which is an amazing feeling for me! Having visited freshers fairs across the country this year, I was able to meet the users who have met other students on the app – I even had people coming up to me to say thank you. The fact we can say that we have helped just one student is amazing, but knowing we’re helping thousands is incredible.

I want to ensure that no student has the same experience I had, because everyone deserves to get the most out of university life. Besides, uni is largely about meeting the people who will make that experience amazing.

What advice do you have for new students starting university this autumn?

Just go for it! Join that club, that society, that sport group. Make the first move – everyone is as nervous as each other and just remember that. You saying hi will be a blessing to anyone there. Have an open mind and you never know who you will meet and what experiences you will have. Just put yourself out there.

Are there more apps on the horizon?

I really don’t want to stop here. I have the bug now and opportunities are everywhere.

In addition to the interest being shown by UK universities and their student cohorts, Umii has garnered interest from a USA university, and Georgia and her team are looking to Australia for more potential. It’s clear that what emerged from one person’s feeling of isolation is set to ensure that no-one needs to feel lonely when they make that leap from school to a wider world of education.

Image:  The Umii Team.