During quarantine, students pursue passion projects

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 8:02pm

University alum Maggie Li and LSA senior Emily Serhan meet with their team on Zoom to discuss their new mental health screening app "Nois."

University alum Maggie Li and LSA senior Emily Serhan meet with their team on Zoom to discuss their new mental health screening app "Nois." Buy this photo
Courtesy of Maggie Li and Emily Serhan

While the pandemic brought restrictions on social interactions, it also provided time for students to explore their passions. During the past six months, some University of Michigan students tried their hand at new projects and even started their own small businesses.

As the pandemic negatively affects the mental wellbeing of many young people, recent University alumni Maggie Li and LSA senior Emily Serhan created an app called “Nois” to facilitate mental health screening. The app uses artificial intelligence to assess people’s responses to a questionnaire and identify their mental health condition.

Afterward, the app also connects users with local psychiatrists for further treatment. 

“What this app does is revolutionize the process from diagnosis to treatment,” Li said. “I feel like we’ve created such a cool, viable product, and even if it doesn’t end up blowing up, at least a few people can get something out of it.”

Business junior Michael Sikand started a multimedia platform. His business Our Future consists of a podcast, a career-series, a newsletter and a merchandise line. In an attempt to bridge the gap between CEOs and college students, he publishes advice on how to enter the business world. 

“I get to interview business leaders from the most exciting companies and flesh out the magic of what goes on behind the scenes in business,” Sikand said. “I like to take listeners beyond the headlines — get a little deeper, get a little more personal.”

Similarly, LSA junior Bret Duntley created a social media platform, Jillion, that allows users to post any type of content they want through their own individual “pages.” His hope is that people will be able to engage with others about complicated issues in depth. Over the summer, Duntley spent 10 hours a day writing more than 30,000 lines of code. 

“I used to do a lot of art in high school, but I never really saw the connection between art and computer science until I started my website,” Duntley said. “What’s kept me going through this is the fact that I can be creative while designing something I’m passionate about.” 

LSA sophomore Annie Malek has a sticker-making business. As a creative outlet during the long months of quarantine, she took to drawing and designing. She uses the website Redbubble to sell stickers and face masks. 

“Honestly, I really love just making people happy with my designs,” Malek said. “Whenever someone receives something I make they’re always so thankful and it makes me super happy to make them something that they love. It also gives me something more creative to do, since I am majoring in chemistry and most of the things I do during the day are STEM-based.”

The students emphasized that one of the more difficult aspects of starting a new project is the fear of it not being successful. However, all three students trusted that it would work out in the end. 

“Starting a small business is a great way to get to know people who you never would have talked to before,” Malek said. “I love being able to put something I made on my laptop or water bottle and then creating conversation starters out of it.”

The students said their projects have also brought them closer to their family members and teammates, whether through team meetings over Zoom or conversing with supporters.

“One of my favorite parts about this process was being able to have conversations with my dad (who’s in business) that he and I have never had before,” Serhan said. “It was really insightful to be able to learn about his perspective of running a business. The amount of support that we received from people like this created such a positive contribution.” 

Malek said she would encourage others who are interested in trying new endeavors to not put too much pressure on themselves. Li agreed and added that an idea can grow into a hobby or even a larger passion project.

“When you have an idea, you never know what’s going to come from it,” Li said. “Everyone’s brain is wired differently, and that’s what makes everyone’s ideas awesome.”

Daily Contributor Ashna Mehra can be reached at ashmehra@umich.edu.

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