Bettina Arkhurst comes from a large, tight-knit family. Her relatives hail from across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Ghana. They fly to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and family reunions, and support one another during difficult times.
Coming to MIT, Arkhurst quickly settled in and made friends, but she worried about her classmates who lacked the strong social ties she had always known and valued. “I felt there was a need for more empathy and connection on campus,” she said. “If someone didn’t find a friend group or feel a sense of belonging in their classes, then their college experience could be isolating, and MIT is not a place to go through alone.”
During her sophomore year, Arkhurst joined the MindHandHeart Initiative as a co-chair in the Connectedness Working Group, and worked alongside fellow students, faculty, and staff members on projects to make MIT a healthier, more welcoming place.
“It was serendipitous how MindHandHeart was just beginning and I had been thinking of starting a program to positively impact our campus culture,” she said. “The goals of MindHandHeart aligned with my belief that peoples’ well-being needs to be a top priority in our academic, residential, and social environments.”
In the second semester of her sophomore year, Arkhurst and her friend and classmate Cory Johnson applied for and were awarded funds to pilot Random Act of Kindness (RAK) Week through the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund. Their idea was to encourage small, spontaneous acts of generosity and meaningful moments of connection through loosely planned events and “RAK hacks.”
The first RAK Week began with RAK-themed goodie bags, open houses offering treats, and lots of flowers, bubbles, free hugs, and giveaways. Supported by the MindHandHeart volunteer coalition, along with members of the Delta Phi Epsilon Sorority and Nu Delta Fraternity, the event spread across campus. “I knew RAK Week had really taken off when a classmate gave me a flower and began explaining ‘Random Acts of Kindness Week’ to me,” said Arkhurst.
This year’s RAK Week was supported by the Connectedness Working Group and involved the participation of even more academic departments and centers. The Department of Chemistry, for example, held a series of RAK events, as did MIT Libraries and the Women and Gender Studies Program. Students enjoyed free 10-minute chair massages, care packages, and homemade pastries.
Arkhurst took the lead in coordinating RAK Week volunteers and distributing supplies, like lumber, cake mix, and craft materials. And she did all of this while balancing a demanding mechanical engineering course load, a teaching assistant position in a Physics I class, and roles with MIT’s gospel choir, Experimental Study Group, and the CASE (Class Awareness, Support and Equality) student group.
Both RAK Weeks culminated in an open mic night in the Media Lab. “This year’s event was called ‘Let’s Talk About It’ and was run by Delta Phi Epsilon,” Arkhurst explains. “It was a forum for students to come on stage and share whatever was on their minds or in their hearts. Some people gave advice, others shared challenges, or performed spoken word. It was a chance to reflect, feel supported, and realize that everyone you pass in the halls has a story and struggles, and that you’re not alone.”
Arkhurst has been recognized for her role in founding and leading RAK Week, and has been granted a number of awards, including the Bridge Builder Award, Laya Wiesner Award, and the Emerging Leader Award.
Arkhurst and the MindHandHeart initiative plan to hold RAK Week again next year and expect it to reach even more departments and centers. Reflecting on her leadership roles within MindHandHeart and RAK Week, Arkhurst, now a rising senior, says: “It’s been really rewarding seeing people from different parts of the MIT community coming together to support mental health. If there wasn’t for MindHandHeart, I don’t think there would be much of an outlet for people who want to apply their creativity to support well-being on campus.”
This summer, Arkhurst is applying her leadership and organizational skills working as a project management intern at IBM in North Carolina. “I’m enjoying it a lot,” says Arkhurst. “I’m working within IBM’s real estate department to create tools that streamline internal processes and push projects forward. I’ve also had the opportunity to use quite a bit of computer science, which has been rewarding, though I’m definitely a mechanical engineer at heart.”
Heading into her senior year, Arkhurst is uncertain of where her degree is taking her, but — unsurprisingly and admirably — she plans to “create and innovate with the goal of helping other people.”