A Strong PULSE

At 25, the University's groundbreaking service-for-credit program is more popular than ever

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

When David McMenamin became director of the University's PULSE Program four years ago, he had a formidable task at hand: provide more openings for the enormously popular program, but keep from straining its resources or ruining its sense of community in the process.

"I was told to be careful because it is the easiest program to ruin at Boston College," McMenamin quipped.

It was a tall order, but McMenamin has expanded the program without forfeiting quality, maintaining the delicate balance that has kept PULSE successful. Now celebrating its 25th year of offering students the opportunity to earn academic credit for community work, PULSE remains a model for other universities around the world trying to set up similar programs. The growth is not just the result of student interest, which has always been high, but also increasing support from the University, according to McMenamin.

"It's cutting edge and people recognize that," McMenamin said. "That's what I understood it to be when I took the job, and that's where we still are."

PULSE Director David McMenamin-"We try to remain relevant to students, so the nature of the placements has evolved in accord with our own awareness of social problems. So, the ideas of virtue and excellence are not just an abstraction . . . now, which is what this is all about." (Photo by Mark Morelli)

Created through the Philosophy Department, PULSE combines supervised social service and advocacy field work with the study of philosophy and theology. Under Richard Keeley - who directed PULSE for 17 years and is now associate dean of the Carroll School of Management - and McMenamin, PULSE evolved into a structured program supported by faculty, administrators, students and members of the Greater Boston community. Over 300 students participate annually, combining philosophical readings with 10 to 12 hours of fieldwork each week at one of 45 volunteer placements. These include work with prisoners, substance abusers, battered women, AIDS patients, the homeless, mentally ill, elderly and disabled individuals.

"By virtue of the service involved, students see how the material they read in class applies to the world they see around them," said McMenamin. "It allows them to bring the texts of ancient Greeks to bear on contemporary society, which they use to question those texts."

In just the last four years, through additional faculty and monetary support from the University, PULSE has experienced a growing interest among both students and agencies. The number of participating students rose from 240 to 300 annually, with more students trying to get in (the program's basic course, "Person and Social Responsibility," had a 100-name enrollment waiting list this year, despite the addition of three sections). In addition, almost 50 students applied for the eight slots available on the PULSE Council, which acts as a liaison between the students and their placements.

Placements at 10 agencies have been added in the last four years, including two shelters for battered women and three AIDS-related placements. Rosie's Place, a Boston women's shelter which has been involved with PULSE for over 20 years, has remained a popular placement with the students, said McMenamin, while those that match students with adolescents in mentoring or tutoring relationships attract the most students.

"We try to remain relevant to students, so the nature of the placements has evolved in accord with our own awareness of social problems," said McMenamin, recounting how one student told him that the service component had given her a better appreciation of her Aristotle readings. "So, the ideas of virtue and excellence are not just an abstraction to this student now, which is what this is all about."

"It has really been a shaping experience in my life," said Junior Kevin Barry, one of 16 PULSE Council members, who tutored inmates at Suffolk County Jail for his placement work. "PULSE classes bring texts to life in social action."

McMenamin is planning some changes in the program aimed at broadening students' perspectives. In the fall, PULSE will begin re-introducing English, psychology and sociology courses into its curriculum. McMenamin also plans to take advantage of an existing exchange with a Jesuit university in the Philippines, Ateneo De Manilla, where students could learn about life in a developing country through a program similar to PULSE.

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