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The Heart of Service Learning

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Pitching in at St. Francis House: Kate Heaton, MA’09, works with PULSE student Nick Savage ’17 and volunteer Fabiana Videla.

Campaign Benefactors Expand Benchmark BC Program

Ellen Cooney ’08 was stunned. Recently graduated from Boston College, she’d heard something unexpected and called home to share it.

“Mom,” she said. “They say there’s a waitlist for PULSE now. How can you be wait-listed to work at a homeless shelter?”

It says something about BC that a course requiring students to work 10–12 hours each week in a demanding volunteer placement, as well as attend lectures and discussion groups, routinely has a waitlist of up to 200 students. But after a transformative experience in her freshman year, Cooney understands how im­portant the program is to BC students.

“Volunteering with Project Bread brought me face to face with hunger,” she explains. “It opened my eyes. Everyone should have that chance.”

Her parents, Loretta and Robert Cooney ’74, P’08, ’10, shared her concern that such a popular and respected program could not meet student demand.

“PULSE is the BC mission in action,” says Bob Cooney, a University Trustee. “It really struck us that there were BC students who wanted to have this incredible—and uniquely BC—experience, and couldn’t.”

A Service Learning Pioneer

Created in 1969, PULSE places the study of philosophy and theology into a real-life context that has since become the model for service learning in higher education. Co-founder and philosophy professor Patrick Byrne ’69, P’02, ’04, ’06, ’13, says it was built on the belief that if students experienced firsthand the suffer­ing of those on society’s margins, they would better appreciate the issues that contribute to social inequality.

The foundational PULSE class integrates academic exploration of what Byrne calls “the timeless questions” with fieldwork over the course of two semesters. In class, students are assigned readings from Plato and St. Augustine as well as contemporary thinkers who wrestle with issues of social justice. At their placements, students feed the hungry, clothe the homeless, care for the mentally ill, tutor children, and befriend the imprisoned, all while bringing their experience back to the classroom for examination and discussion.

Meghan Sweeney, who has taught PULSE courses for the past eight years and was recently named the Cooney Family PULSE Director, says it goes far beyond most community service projects. “Through these shared experiences and reflections, PULSE students develop a deep understanding of why people need these services, and they carry that understanding with them wherever their careers take them,” says Sweeney.

“We know it works,” add Byrne, citing several recent peer-reviewed studies showing that PULSE participants are more engaged in public service after college and more conscious of income disparity. But for him, the real proof is the thousands of PULSE graduates who have kept in touch with the program over the years.

“One former student who was working for a major pharmaceutical company was able to help the company respond ethically and effectively to a medical liability situation, drawing on what he’d learned in PULSE,” says Byrne. “Another left a regional distribution company when he was asked to do something he knew was unethical. Later, that company was severely censured.”

Securing the Future

But coordinating 400-plus students with 50 social service programs each semester is a significant undertaking, even with help from the 18-member PULSE Council, composed of past participants who manage student placements and agency relationships. “You’d be amazed how much effort goes into matching each student with just the right placement so that students—and agencies— get the greatest benefit,” says Assistant Director Rachael Hennessey-Crowell ’10, MSW’11, MBA’13.

After placement, PULSE faculty and staff provide ongoing support and mentoring, as well as offering eight additional PULSE electives. But with only two full-time staff and a growing list of students eager to enroll, the program just did not have the capacity to grow.

Now, a generous gift from the Cooney family will help, making PULSE available to even more students. The Cooney Family PULSE Directorship will infuse PULSE with resources for additional faculty and staff that will enable the program to expand—and create an endowment that will ensure the program is viable for genera-tions to come.

“Loretta is very concerned about the inequities that PULSE explores, and I’m proud that BC is committed to programs like this,” says Cooney, who credits his wife as the driving force behind their gift. “It was important to both of us that this core BC program be opened up to as many students as possible.”

Thanks to the Cooney family, PULSE—a program at the heart of BC’s mission—is poised to make an even greater impact at the Heights and far beyond.

PULSE at a Glance

1969 Year founded

45 Agency partners, 54 sites

380+ Students enroll annually

13,000 Approximate total number of students since 1969

24,935 Light the World donors to student formation and BC’s Jesuit, Catholic heritage

@PULSEProgramBC
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“I wanted to change the world. PULSE helped me put my passions for social justice and service into a real context that ultimately led me to a career in social work and public policy.”

—Emily Ball Jabbour ’03
Social Science Research Analyst, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


“I have seen PULSE set the standard for service learning over four decades. In 1976, I was the first PULSE Victory House volunteer. I like to say I’m the longest-serving PULSE student on record. This year, Victory Programs has some 18 PULSE students volunteering across our programs—dedicated, thoughtful young people who make a real difference for homeless men, women, and families.”

—Jonathan Scott ’79
President and CEO, Victory Programs, Inc.


“I’ve taught PULSE classes for more than 30 years—almost since I was a PULSE student myself. I see how strongly the combination of academic and practical experience affects students today. Whatever your major, there is something you can take with you from PULSE for the rest of your life. No one comes away unchanged.”

—David Manzo ’77, P’06
President, Cotting School


“Many PULSE students arrive at St. Francis House with little experience working with the urban poor, but with Ignatian spirituality informing their attitudes and methods of service. Because they seek to gain understanding and serve the poor with humility, PULSE students become trusted, valued members of the St. Francis House community.”

—Kate Heaton, MA’09
Former Manager of Volunteer Services and Pastoral Care, St. Francis House

Boston College Alumni and Friends