If the spirit of PULSE could be expressed in one statement, it would be Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” PULSE is a service-learning program that combines classwork with community service. With 55 community partners throughout Boston, students are given the opportunity to learn from people outside the classroom ranging from supervisors at non-profit agencies to marginalized populations in neighborhoods throughout the city. Until recently, however, Boston’s southern neighborhood of Mattapan, a name rarely uttered on campus, had been omitted from the services of PULSE.
PULSE began its operations in the spring of 1969, but historically very few of its community partners were located in Mattapan. Working as a summer staff member for the PULSE program, I discovered that there were never more than one or two community partners in Mattapan at a time, and no partnerships with the program had been in operation in Mattapan since 2006. This year, however, saw a change. A generous gift to the PULSE program from University Trustee Robert Cooney ’74 and his family in 2014 presented new resources to expand the program to new levels. New core classes, faculty, and staff were added on and, as of last year, an additional van for transporting students to their service sites. PULSE now has partnerships with three Mattapan-based agencies: Haitian-American Public Health Initiative (HAPHI), Boston Center for Youth & Families (BCYF) Mildred Avenue, and Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) Mattapan Family Service Center.
Normally, PULSE students take public transportation to commute to their service sites, however exceptions are made for a small number of partners that are further away from BC. Assistant Director of the PULSE program, Shanteri Baliga, cited the new van as a significant factor in developing partnerships in Mattapan, as a commute via public transportation would take longer than most PULSE commutes. But what about Mattapan specifically prompted the thought? “There really were no existing partnerships in Mattapan. It’s a Boston neighborhood. Why not Mattapan?” Baliga explained.
For PULSE’s Program Assistant Joane Etienne, the decision to expand into Mattapan was more personal: “I lived there for over ten years; it’s where I spent some formative years,” Etienne expressed. “I saw an opportunity where I could marry my personal and professional goals.” For Etienne, expanding PULSE students’ services into Mattapan was a matter of filling a gap, recognizing that there are limited services in the neighborhood from college students that engage in service throughout Boston. Due to that gap, several of the agencies that operated in Mattapan had no idea that programs like PULSE existed. Leveraging her personal experience and know-how of the neighborhood, Etienne took the initiative this summer to approach HAPHI and BCYF: “I went out one day and I literally just walked in there and asked if I could talk to somebody, gave them my card, and sold them!” The timing could not have been better: HAPHI had been considering freezing its ESL course, and Etienne knew how much BCYF Mildred could use a few extra sets of hands, with both herself and her son taking swimming classes at the agency in the past.
The services provided by PULSE students must not be confused as a one-way relationship, however. The goal of the partnership is to promote mutual benefits. Mattapan includes the largest Haitian population in Boston, which brings with it a large language barrier for the community. PULSE students begin to understand the limited incomes and the host of other challenges that face immigrant populations. HAPHI works to break the language barrier for immigrants by providing ESL classes and other services to their community. A grass-roots operation that has been around the community for years and years, HAPHI provides the essential basics for immigrants to improve their lives. The services HAPHI offers aren’t necessarily smooth or well-funded, but for Etienne, “it’s important for PULSE students to see that level of need and learn how to serve nontheless.”
Of course, Program Director Meghan Sweeney had the final say in developing the partnerships. For Sweeney, the primary reason for adjusting PULSE’s partnerships is “assessing what our program needs are, and trying to meet the needs of our program.” The desire for partnerships to be mutually beneficial is always the “number one concern.” That being said, Sweeney acknowledged that “having a breadth of knowledge about the city is helpful for students.”
The expansion into Mattapan provides the valuable opportunity for BC students to learn more about a unique part of the city often overlooked, and for valuable services and relationships to be developed in the neighborhood as well. The common theme I’ve encountered in explaining why the expansion into Mattapan occurred is that it was never purely about PULSE itself. “We always want PULSE to be outward facing. We never want PULSE to be about PULSE,” Sweeney argued. Hopefully as these new partnerships develop, PULSE students will discover that they can learn to value marginalized populations in Mattapan above themselves and take that message back to BC.