The Mission Multiplier: 50 Years of PULSE

There are few classes anywhere in academia that inspire the admiration, respect, and even reverence of Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. Alumni often cite it not only as their most important experience at BC, but also as one of the seminal influences of their lives. Thanks to one dedicated BC family, PULSE has not only survived a half century, it is flourishing.

“Love,” wrote St. Ignatius of Loyola, “ought to be shown more in deeds than in words.”

In dozens of neighborhoods across Boston, PULSE students engage in those loving deeds, caring for people in need—just as they have since the very first PULSE course was taught. At Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, they feed the hungry and clothe the homeless. In Boys & Girls Clubs, in YMCAs, in schools, they befriend at-risk children, assist in classrooms, and help with homework. They help addicts reenter society; they help prisoners find jobs upon release. They speak with desperate callers on the Samaritans’ crisis hotline.

Meghan Sweeney, Cooney Family Director of the PULSE Program for Service Learning, engages with past and present PULSE students in the program’s Stokes Hall office.

And then they bring those experiences—profound, confusing, frightening, moving, challenging—back to the Heights.

It’s a holistic, deeply Jesuit idea: service to others firmly grounded in a context both academic and self-reflective. Ask Robert Cooney ’74, P’08, ’10, why PULSE has such an important place at BC, and he’ll tell you simply: “PULSE is the BC mission in action.” The program enters its second half century greatly strengthened—and with the potential to impact many more lives—thanks to generous gifts from Cooney and his wife, Loretta. Their support has already allowed the University to expand PULSE and increase the number of participants; they have also established an endowment which will benefit the program for generations to come. In recognition of the family’s transformative philanthropy, the PULSE program leader will be known as the Cooney Family Director. Meghan Sweeney has been named the inaugural holder of the position. Cooney, a longtime BC Trustee and now Trustee Associate, explains that the couple wanted to establish an endowment in support of the program’s leadership—“excellent faculty are the lifeblood of a university,” he says—and also have an immediate impact on its growth.

According to Sweeney, PULSE cultivates a “different way of seeing,” and it showed Rachel Drew ’20 a way to combine her love of volunteerism and her desire to teach, setting her on a path she’d never considered.

“I worked one-on-one with a student as a tutor—and a mentor and friend—in a public housing development in Brighton,” she recalls. “Through the eyes of this young girl, I viewed education in such a different way than I ever had. It completely changed the type of education that I saw myself doing. I decided I wanted to work in an urban public school and focus on speakers of other languages in classrooms where only English is spoken.”

What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.



Trustee Associate Robert Cooney and his wife, Loretta Cooney, speak with PULSE students at the celebration of the Cooney Family Directorship in November 2018.
PULSE’s power, Sweeney explains, lies in its multifaceted approach. “PULSE educates students in multiple parts of their lives—intellectual, spiritual, moral. If you ask someone 10, 15, 20 years out what they remember, it’s where they served and who they served. The classroom work interprets that experience. It’s sort of like the back room, the framework.

“Experience alone is not what transforms someone. It’s the action and then the reflection on it.”

That fundamentally Jesuit insight is the inspiration behind PULSE, says cofounder Patrick Byrne ’69, who has taught in the program throughout its five decades. In the late 1960s, BC students frequently protested that theology and philosophy weren’t relevant to the “real world.” Byrne and Joseph Flanagan, S.J., the then-chair of the philosophy department, set out to integrate social action and academic reflection. Based in both the theology and philosophy departments, PULSE—which is not an acronym, despite urban legend to the contrary—took its inspiration from St. Ignatius’ exhortation to serve others, to “help souls,” as his early followers put it, and from Aristotle, who wrote: “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.” The result was a new way of integrating classroom instruction with direct service that would come to be called service learning.

Bob and Loretta Cooney took a special interest in PULSE after their daughter, Ellen ’08, and daughter-in-law, Kate ’10, both had life-changing experiences in the program. When Ellen realized that PULSE routinely had to turn away well over 100 students each year due to limited space, she urged her parents to help.

“We saw a need that we were happy to fill,” says Loretta Cooney. “It’s such an impressive program.”

The result has been a major program expansion. The Cooneys are delighted to see PULSE grow as they’d hoped, and equally pleased that Sweeney is the inaugural holder of their directorship. An Episcopal priest who has been a hospital chaplain and campus minister as well as a theology professor, “Meghan is truly the perfect PULSE director,” says Bob. “It’s so important to have someone who understands this combination of classroom learning and service opportunity; Meghan’s devoted her career to that.” Adds Loretta, “She really inspires the students.”


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The family members who inspired Bob and Loretta Cooney to get involved with PULSE share their satisfaction. Ellen and Kate Cooney each say that they hated the idea of any student who wanted to take PULSE being turned away. “PULSE gave me a perspective that informs everything I do—a lens to view the world where the disenfranchised are an important part of the picture,” says Ellen. “Anyone who is open to that experience should have it.” Kate agrees. “I gained a direction I hadn’t had before, a realization that my skills could be put to a greater purpose if I focused my career on service to others,” she says. “PULSE was one of the most profound experiences I’d ever had. I’d never worked with kids before, but I found my passion for urban education working in an after-school program in the South End at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.” PULSE spun her around and set her on a path that led her to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after graduation, followed by a stint with Teach for America. Most recently, she has been the director of learning support at the Chicago Jesuit Academy, a full-scholarship school on Chicago’s West Side.

Kate’s story—like Ellen’s, like Rachel’s, like those of so many PULSE students—illustrates PULSE’s singular ability to help students transform good intentions into meaningful action. “What makes PULSE so powerful—not only for students, but for the people they serve as well,” says Sweeney, “is that our students truly grow—it’s formative for them, and then there’s a ripple effect. A single PULSE student, beginning with a single volunteer placement, can touch so many lives for the better.”

Thanks to the Cooney Family, PULSE celebrates a half century with a notable boost.

›› More than 400 additional PULSE students
›› More than 100,000 additional hours of service
›› 2 new staff positions
›› 1 new minivan







Beacon Staff

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