Carlotta Tenore had plenty of concerns before she came to Starkville from Milan, Italy, on Aug. 1, 2019, as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program.
Would she make friends at Starkville High School? Would she get along with her host family? Would she like the new city she was going to be living in?
One worry, though, never crossed her mind.
“I never thought about a global pandemic,” Tenore said.
The COVID-19 outbreak — which hit Tenore’s home country hard before it spread rapidly across her new surroundings — cost the high school senior the end of her final semester, deprived her of the enjoyment of her weekly Rotary Club meetings and will likely delay her graduation as well.
“It’s not exactly how I thought it would be,” Tenore admitted of her time in America.
But less than two weeks ago, her host parents, Tim Schauwecker and Erinn Holloway Schauwecker, teamed up with the Starkville Rotary Club to provide Tenore with a sweet surprise that she never saw coming.
Tenore planned to spend time with her friends from Starkville High on April 9, when she would be celebrating her 18th birthday — an important milestone in her home country.
At 18, Italians become eligible to receive their driver’s license and become a legal adult “in every sense,” Tenore said. A “very, very, very big party” — relatives first and friends joining after — usually commemorates the day.
Because of the pandemic, though, Tenore had to scrap her birthday plans with her friends, preparing to spend the day talking to her relatives and friends back home and hanging out with her host family.
Tenore had a Zoom video-chat meeting with her friends from Liceo Classico Carducci, her high school in Italy, at 9 a.m. (4 p.m. in Milan). At 11 a.m., she called her parents, Alberto and Jolanda, who looped several other relatives in for birthday wishes. Then Tenore called her Rotary club — Brescia Sud-Est Montichiari — whose members sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
“The morning was definitely dedicated to the overseas calls,” Tenore recalled.
Later that day, Holloway Schauwecker told Tenore that the family was going outside to play. Tenore got ready and headed out into the yard, where she has often spent time reading during the pandemic. Then she noticed something.
“Suddenly, I saw this group of cars coming toward our house,” Tenore said. “I was like, ‘What is that?'”
“‘Oh, surprise!'” the Schauweckers told her.
Rotary Club members — including vice president Grant Arinder and Tenore’s counselor Nancy Hargrove — parked in the Schauweckers’ driveway and piled out of their vehicles. On the side of a white Rotary van, a banner read “Happy Birthday! Carlotta!” in blue lettering. The Rotarians sang “Happy Birthday” to Tenore, who posed for a picture in front of the van with two club members, all three standing a safe distance apart.
For the exchange student, who hadn’t been able to attend a Rotary meeting since Feb. 24, seeing her friends and mentors again was both unexpected and enjoyable.
“I feel like home every time I see them, and unfortunately I don’t have the chance to do it anymore,” Tenore said. “They treated me like a daughter.”
Nine months in Starkville
Prior to the pandemic, club members sat down with Tenore to help her figure out what career she wants to pursue. The senior hopes to attend Mississippi State and major in something related to communications, and she mentioned an interest in broadcasting or writing about sports.
For Tenore’s first semester in Starkville, her host mother was Ann Brett Gillespie Strickland, the general manager of Bulldog Sports Properties at Mississippi State. Tenore attended every MSU football game at Davis Wade Stadium, sitting close to the action and falling in love with the sport. She joined the Starkville High cross country team, attended all of the Jackets’ football games and attended multiple MSU basketball and baseball games.
An avid fan of the Inter Milan soccer team in her home city, Tenore said she often attended games with her dad and her 14-year-old brother, Lorenzo.
“It’s probably because I’ve been watching it for my whole life that it’s not my favorite sport,” Tenore said.
Tenore prefers basketball, which she has played since she was 4 and regularly plays with her host brother Joseph, 13, in the Schauweckers’ yard. Tenore and her host sister Lily, who is 15, often watch TV shows together.
Hanging out with her new family members became a way for Tenore to avoid homesickness and enjoy her time in Starkville. She noted that it’s been more than eight months since she’s seen her family — and their separation will end up being at least a little longer than Tenore originally planned.
Her parents and brother were finally slated to come to Starkville on May 20 and attend her May 22 graduation. Tenore said her mom was all but ready to book her trip when the airline called, advising her not to travel during the pandemic.
That turned out to be for the best, as Tenore knows it’s unlikely that Starkville High will hold an in-person graduation — one of the things Tenore was looking forward to when she left Italy for the U.S.
“I came here for graduation, and not being able to do the ceremony was very upsetting,” she said.
If prom, graduation or both are delayed until the fall, Tenore said, her parents are open to her returning to the U.S. to attend.
She’s scheduled to go back to Milan with her family on May 28, but she might stick around longer to attend graduation if it is held this summer — if she can, that is. Some states have told their exchange students to return to their home countries, and Tenore is worried about the status of her visa should she aim to stay longer.
“But it’s an international crisis, so I suppose that they will let me stay for at least two more months,” she said.
While the U.S. has been ravaged by COVID-19, Italy was one of the first nations to be devastated by the pandemic — and Lombardy, the region of which Milan is the capital, was the most impacted part of the country.
More than 23,000 Italians — including a high school friend of Alberto’s — have died from the virus. Some people around Tenore’s age remain in the hospital fighting against it, though she said she doesn’t know any of them well.
“Luckily, no one that was very close to me got sick,” Tenore said.
And even though she can’t deny the impact the pandemic has had on her homeland and her time in the U.S., Tenore said her year in Starkville is still “going great.”
Her birthday proved to be just one example.
After Tenore called her friends and parents and the Rotary Club made its impromptu visit, the Schauweckers cooked Tenore a celebratory dinner and made her a cake. It was a “pretty day,” Tenore said; the family stayed outside until the sun went down.
“At the end of the day, it was a very nice birthday, and it was exactly where I wanted it to be: in the United States,” Tenore said. “So I was happy.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.