App to provide anonymous support network for 'U' students

Wednesday, April 8, 2020 - 9:07pm

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Design by Caitlin Martens

Opening kare’s website, the tagline “because sometimes we don’t feel our best” appears on the homepage. According to Business junior Bennett Hilkert, chief executive officer and a co-founder of kare, this tagline outlines the purpose of the company: to help connect students via an anonymous peer-to-peer support network. 

According to Hilkert, kare, which is being launched as a mobile app, is his response to a stigma he noticed surrounding the use of University of Michigan’s resources, as well as frustration with Counseling and Psychology Services’ long wait times. 

“A lot of times it might be you didn’t do as well as you wanted to on an exam, or you had a breakup but maybe you’re not in a dire mental need,” Hilkert said. “We felt like maybe professional therapists weren’t needed there as much as peers, so we did a lot of research into peer-to-peer support.”

Hilkert began work on the project in fall 2019 with co-founders Business and Engineering junior Stephanie Shoo and Engineering senior Rodney Shibu. 

“We felt that a lot of students maybe needed problem-solving and stress relief more than they needed actual therapy,” Hilkert said. “So, we decided to create sort of a mobile application community, or an online community, that would allow students to connect and talk with each other anonymously, and hopefully make people feel a little better.”

Hilkert said he based his idea off of Wolverine Support Network and their peer-to-peer support system. 

“I thought (Wolverine Support Network) is a really good resource,” Hilkert said. “But the limitation there is that it’s once a week for an hour rather than being a live resource where you can chat at any time.”

The community feature of the kare app works through threads, where students can make groups about anything they want to chat about. 

“It could be, for example, ‘Econ 101 homework help’ or it could be ‘stressed about grades’ or it could be ‘internship group,’” Hilkert said. “Then (students) can all sort of chat anonymously and create sub-threads within that, where they’re able to talk about different things that are bothering them.”

With the app being completely anonymous, the kare team has implemented measures designed to ensure kare remains a safe community. Users who make threatening statements, engage in cyberbullying or use names will have their account deleted, as outlined in the user agreement.

Shoo, who is chief procurement officer of kare, was involved with running focus groups and conducting user interviews with students about the product. According to Shoo, these interviews confirmed the need in the community for such a resource, with one student telling her he does not have time to wait weeks to talk to a professional who he feels does not really understand him.

“It really reaffirmed my time that I’ve committed to kare because that’s exactly what kare does,” Shoo said. “It’s an instantaneous platform that allows students to overcome that barrier of being worried that their issues aren’t big enough.”

With classes moving to an online format and students having to social distance, the team said they decided to accelerate work and move up the launch time to this month rather than next semester. The app is set to have an early release on April 17 for the first 1,000 University students who sign up

“We really want to be a resource for people during this hectic time,” Hilkert said. “We felt like being able to chat anonymously, whether it be about your internship being potentially canceled or about how you’re handling different grading policies or different things … (It) was really important to launch now.” 

They all continue to work on the project from home through virtual meetings with their team, which consists of the three co-founders, three students in computer science helping on the technical side of the app and several freshmen helping with development and business management. 

Because the team wants to launch the app as soon as they can, kare is currently focused solely on the community aspect of the app. There are several other features the team said they hope to integrate in later, such as an active listener feature where students can connect with trained peer listeners. These peers would be represented by different keywords, such as their major or their ethnicity, to help students find individuals able to relate to their experiences.

Though kare is currently just open to University students, Shibu, who is chief technology officer, said they have plans to expand to colleges nationwide, and the universities they have already spoken to expressed interest in the app.

“We hope we can get a bunch of users onto the platform from a bunch of different universities because, since it is a community, it will be the more the merrier,” Shibu said. “The more people you have on, the more people can give their feedback.”

Reporter Iulia Dobrin can be reached at idobrin@umich.edu.