Alumni Profile

Will Delaney and Joan Bennett

Two people stand in front of a large photo collage on a sandy pink wall.

HECUA alumni Will Delaney and Joan Bennett.

Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. We love to catch up with HECUA alumni to see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email This month’s alumni profile is a two-for-one! We’ve found two alumni (from the very same HECUA program, no less), Will Delaney and Joan Bennett, working at affordable housing provider and anti-gentrification powerhouse Hope Community.

Will and Joan are both alumni of HECUA’s Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland program. Will, Hope Community’s Associate Director, completed the program in Northern Ireland in 2003. Joan followed a year later, in 2004. We sat down with them in Hope’s offices in the heart of Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood to hear how they’d encountered the program and what they’d learned during their semester with HECUA.

When we asked Will and Joan what drew them to the program in Northern Ireland, their responses couldn’t have been more different. Will, a St. Olaf student at the time, described his Irish heritage and long-standing interest in the peace process in Northern Ireland. His family hosted a Northern Irish student through the Ulster Project when he was in high school, cementing his desire to learn more about the county’s history. As a student, he searched specifically for a program that would offer an in-depth exploration of the conflict between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the UK, as well as its evolving resolution.

Joan, on the other hand, happened upon the program by chance. Initially enrolled in a now-defunct HECUA program in Guatemala, she reassessed that decision when she learned the semester would be spent primarily in rural areas of the country. An Urban Studies and Geography double major at Macalester College, she was looking for something a little more, well, urban. The Northern Ireland program seemed like it fit the bill, and the internship component was an added bonus. She requested a swap, and was soon on her way to Derry-Londonderry.


The Antrim Coast. Photo credit: Will Delaney.

Once they’d arrived safely in their new homes, Will and Joan said that some of the most memorable moments were interactions they found outside of the classroom. Will remembers vividly being given an impromptu tour of historical sites in Derry-Londonderry by a witness to the Bloody Sunday protest in 1972. The volunteer tour guide was a Derry-Londonderry resident, there to give testimony during the ongoing Bloody Sunday hearings. He took an interest in the small group of young Americans, and offered to show them around. “He gave us a little tour in his own car, showing us a number of different sites all around Derry and in the neighboring areas,” Will remembers. “It was incredible.”

Joan agrees that many Northern Irish people took what seemed to be a special interest in Americans. “I remember being taken to meet so many grandmothers,” she says. “We’d have tea and soda bread, and all sit down to visit.” Will nods, and adds that the rumors are true: many of the people they met in Northern Ireland loved to tell stories. “It was great, because we were there to learn,” he says.

The side of a three story building is painted a bright peach. Almost completely covering the wall is a red circle, surrounded by green leaves. Filling the circle are men's faces - victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre.

Bloody Sunday Memorial Mural. Photo credit Will Delaney.

In addition to this informal education, there was class time dedicated to the history of the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland, surveys of contemporary Northern Irish life, and an intensive internship with a local NGO. Joan interned at St. Columb’s House in Derry (still a placement site for current HECUA students), and Will spent his time at the Volunteer Development Agency in Belfast. Both found their internship experiences valuable as they began to imagine and work towards future careers.

“I remember putting the youth work I did at St. Columb’s on my resume. I used the strategies I practiced there in my first job at a youth worker at PPL,” Joan says. Will, too, describes how the Volunteer Development Agency gave him a more specific idea of what a future career in the public or nonprofit sector could be. “I can see a clear connection from the program to where I am now,” he says.

Will’s work now is as Associate Director, leading the fundraising and real estate teams at Hope Community, where he’s been an employee for the last ten years. He and Joan, Hope’s Real Estate Specialist, work in tandem to design and implement strategies that allow Hope to provide more than 300 units of affordable housing in the heart of Minneapolis’ Phillips community. These units range from large buildings with multiple units of supportive housing to single family homes and duplexes.

Joan says, “Will goes out and hustles, networks, and sets up the strategy, and then I help implement it. I fill out the paperwork and navigate the bureaucracy.” They’re currently in the midst of a massive project to rehabilitate some of Hope’s oldest units, working with the city, the state, the community, and Hope residents to make sure that the homes are up to everybody’s standards. It’s hard work, but they’re motivated to see it through. As Joan puts it, “It’s work that is enjoyable because you know that the mission is important.”

When asked what advice they would give to a current HECUA student, Will and Joan encourage students to take full advantage of the freedom and choice HECUA programs offer, both inside and outside of the classroom. Will says, “There’s a good framework provided by HECUA, and it’s up to the student to take advantage of it and embrace it. You get out of it what you put into it.” Joan adds, “Take advantage of those unexpected opportunities. Go see people’s grandmothers!”

A group of students stand against a snowy plain, a few bare trees poking out behind them. The photo is clearly a film photograph - the colors have the warm wash and softness that's more common to film than digital media.

HECUA Northern Ireland Class of 2003. Photo credit: Will Delaney.

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