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Double accolade for student who tackled loneliness during the pandemic

21 July 2022


A student who made it her mission to ensure young people would not be lonely during the pandemic is to graduate this week, a month after she was recognised in the Queen’s Jubilee Honours.

Naomi Lea, 23, graduates from Cardiff University on Thursday (21 July) with First-Class Honours in Psychology, having completed her four-year degree in June 2020.

The ceremony comes after the self-proclaimed serial volunteer was awarded a BEM for services to young people, particularly during COVID-19. She set up Project Hope during the first lockdown in 2020, organising online gatherings for 13 to 25-year-olds to help tackle loneliness.

“It feels really exciting – it’s been a lovely few months of celebration,” said Naomi, who has stayed in Cardiff and now works for mental health charity Mind.

“It’s feels lovely to be able to have these achievements recognised – both in terms of my degree and the work I did alongside that. I have happy memories of university but when I finished my degree two years ago my friends and I didn’t really get to say goodbye and we weren’t even sure we would get to graduate so it’s going to be lovely to catch up and celebrate together.

“It’s a really nice way to mark the end of my time at university.”

Naomi, who is from Denbighshire, set up Project Hope in her final year of university at the height of the first lockdown in early 2020, and with the help and support of young people, organised near daily meet ups for young people via zoom, such as quizzes, games nights and tea breaks.

The project has gone from strength to strength but as the pandemic dissipates and lockdowns become a thing of the past, Naomi’s thoughts have turned to what the team has learnt from this unprecedented period – and what they might do next.

Naomi volunteers for multiple charities, including as a ChildLine councillor at NSPCC Wales, an End Child Poverty ambassador and as a leader within a girl guiding unit.

She feels it’s crucial to involve young people in conversations about issues that affect them – and in her current role as young people’s participation and influence officer at Mind she works with a network of 3,000 young people who take part in different roles across the charity.

“I absolutely love it – it combines my passion for young people and means I can give back by helping young people in the same way I was helped,” she said.

“It’s the perfect combination of everything that makes me who I am.”

Naomi has experienced mental health issues herself and campaigns for better access to services for young people, often speaking about her own experiences.

When she received her nod from the Queen, she was pleased but a little overwhelmed.

“My housemate said: ‘There’s a letter here that looks quite important’ – and when I took a look at the envelope it said in bold ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’. I just thought ‘Oh dear, what have I done!’

“It was pretty special but overwhelming as the letter said I had to be a role model for life. I also had to keep it a secret for a month – and I’m not good at keeping secrets.

“It feels very surreal but to be recognised in this way is such a privilege. I hope it can show other young people that they can achieve what they want to, have their voices heard and make a difference in their communities and beyond.”

She added: “Although this award is a huge honour for me, I would also encourage everyone to take a look at the Excellence not Empire campaign. Changing the honours naming system from Empire to Excellence would create a more inclusive source of recognition and one that acknowledges the harm and trauma caused by Britain’s colonial past.”