It all started with a phone call in 1969. Joe Fitzpatrick, president of the student government, had an idea for his friend Pat Byrne, who’d just graduated. “He called me up and said he’d like to hire me as a consultant to plan an internship program where students work in the community and get academic credit for it,” Byrne recalled. “I didn’t have any idea about what the program would actually be. We kind of made it up as we went along.”

What it’s become, of course, is the PULSE Program for Service Learning, in which students earn academic credit for a program that combines volunteer work at Boston community service organizations with the study of the great works of theology and philosophy. “They learn from people who are engaged with deep personal commitments to human service in community service agencies, and also from a philosophical, theological reflection on the themes of justice, injustice, suffering, hope, freedom, and acting ethically,” said Byrne, a professor of philosophy who was PULSE’s first director and who has taught in the program since 1975. “The readings and service work reinforce each other.”

Video by John Walsh | University Communications

Fifty years after its founding, PULSE is one of BC’s most popular, innovative, and influential programs. Nearly 18,000 students have participated, with the numbers growing each year. Today, more than 500 students volunteer as part of PULSE each semester. “For a half-century, PULSE program students and faculty have built a remarkable legacy while giving new life to Boston College’s distinctive mission,” said Provost David Quigley. “I’ve long been impressed by our alumni’s deep affection for the program and appreciation for the profound difference that a year (or more) in PULSE made in their lives.”

You’ll meet such alumni in the stories ahead, people for whom the PULSE experience continues to resonate many, many years past graduation. Some have children who’ve followed them through the program. Others continue to nurture relationships formed during their community service. Still others have seen their career plans changed by their time in PULSE.

“It’s a remarkable program that has had a deep and far-reaching impact on those involved with it,” said Meghan T. Sweeney, who was named the Cooney Family Director of PULSE in 2014. “It forms students as human beings who care about social justice issues and care for individuals who suffer because of poverty, addiction, and oppression.”

For his part, Byrne said he’s “astonished at what PULSE has become. I pushed this small canoe out into the stream and it’s come back a great ship. It’s the unexpected result of the work of an unexpectedly large group of people. And I am in awe of that.”

PULSE brochures

So What Does PULSE Stand For, Anyway?

Written in capital letters that form a familiar word, PULSE sure seems like an acronym. We checked in with Meghan Sweeney, the program’s director, to learn more. “We are often asked, ‘What does PULSE stand for?’” Sweeney said. For help answering that question, she turned to Rachael Hennessey-Crowell, a PULSE alum and former assistant director. “PULSE stands for many things, but the word is not an acronym,” Hennessey-Crowell said. For his part, Pat Byrne, the program’s first director, said the name was chosen because it seemed reflective of the goal of an active engagement in the dynamic state of cultural and political affairs at the time of the program’s founding. At one point, a project was launched to retroactively make PULSE an acronym, but when someone suggested that it stand for “People United to Literally Save Everything,” the effort was summarily abandoned.

PULSE by the Numbers


Student enrollment chart


Community service partners chart


43 years

  • Haley House
    Provides food security, housing, and job training services.
  • Pine Street Inn
    Provides housing, emergency services, and workforce development to those experiencing homelessness.
  • Rosie’s place
    Helps poor and homeless women maintain their dignity, seek opportunity, and find security.

42 years

  • Samaritans
    Provides suicide-prevention services, awareness, and support.


41 years

  • Newton Wellesley Weston Committee for Community Living
    Provides housing, services, and advocacy for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For These Leaders, PULSE Inspired a Lifetime of Community Service


David Manzo ’77, P’06

President and Executive Director,
The Cotting School

David Manzo

Dave Manzo was so moved by his PULSE placement at the Community Advancement Program that he left BC for a year to work at the organization, which provides services to at-risk and gang-involved youth. He eventually finished his philosophy degree, and later returned to the program (now called COMPASS). Times were tough and the organization was on the verge of closing, so Manzo put his home up as collateral for a loan…while his wife was pregnant. Things improved and Manzo wound up running COMPASS for twenty years, leaving in 2004. He’s been president ever since of the Cotting School, which educates kids with special needs, and has been a PULSE adjunct professor for nearly four decades.

Mary Kudless ’73

Retired Deputy Director,
Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board

Mary Kudless

Mary Kudless’s first PULSE placement was at the Joshua Center, a campus support center where BC students provided counseling and referral services. That work, and subsequent rotations in clinical nursing settings, led Kudless to a rewarding career in community mental health. A member of the first PULSE Council, she went on to earn a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing, and eventually served as the deputy director of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which delivers services for people who have mental illness, substance use disorders, or developmental disabilities. Now retired, Kudless continues to volunteer weekly at a free clinic providing mental health treatment.

Jonathan Scott ’79

Retired President and CEO,
Victory Programs

Jonathan Scott

Jonathan Scott started at Victory House during a PULSE placement in 1976 and never left. He worked his way up from volunteer to president and CEO of the agency’s parent organization, Victory Programs, which provides services to people dealing with homelessness, substance use, and chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. When he retired this year, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh declared it “Jonathan Scott Day” in the city. For their part, Scott’s friends from his days on the PULSE Council presented him with a certificate anointing him the holder of the record for the longest PULSE placement. “I found a community in PULSE,” Scott says. “I found my tribe.”   

—Christine Balquist