Hartford, Conn. – Senior Elena Pellegrini is one of thousands of collegiate athletes across the United States missing out on a senior spring season. Though COVID-19 has brought an ultimately disappointing end to the careers of many NCAA competitors, Pellegrini’s journey from Europe to the States, her playing experience as both an NCAA DII and DIII tennis player, and her tireless pursuit towards a doctoral degree in economics provides a unique perspective on how a athlete can navigate the sometimes and confusing and even daunting world of college athletics.
Pellegrini began her tennis journey in her hometown of Livorno, Italy, a historic city well-known for its seafood and its renaissance-era architecture. The West Coast city, where she attended the Liceo Scientifico F. Enriques High School, would nurture her growth as a tennis player. Even at age 14, Pellegrini was primed to be a serious athlete, earning the No. 315 rank in the U-14 European Rankings while playing for her local club team. After returning from a lengthy wrist injury which sidelined her for months, a high school friend of Pellegrini’s who was studying in North Carolina encouraged her to set her sights on school in the United States.
“I always wanted to study abroad,” said Pellegrini. "I love to travel, learn new languages, and get to know other cultures." As her friend continued to rave about tennis and college life in the states, the possibility of attending a U.S. college become more likely. Reflecting on this point of her college process, Pellegrini did some serious soul-searching. Tennis was certainly going to play a large role in both her decision-making and college experience, but piloting through the murky tundra of selecting a college proved overwhelming.
For Pellegrini, the college selection process was never communicated to her during her schooling in Italy. “I didn’t understand the rankings,” she recalls. “I felt lost”. While some of her peers had already made decisions regarding their post-high school lives, Pellegrini continued to search for answers. It was not until late in her senior year when she finally received some guidance. A tennis coach from Wingate University, a Division II school in North Carolina, reached out to the young tennis prospect and offered her an attractive deal: a spot on the women’s tennis team and full scholarship. Pellegrini accepted and was soon living out a long-time aspiration. She packed her backpack (and her tennis bag) and headed to the United States for college.
Pellegrini discovered the college experience at Wingate was less than equal to the one she had envisioned. During her first year in North Carolina, tennis took a back seat to her studies for all the wrong reasons. Pellegrini, who had been passionate about tennis since she first began playing at age eight, was slowly falling out of love with the sport. She felt pressured to perform on the court while not supported anough with her academics. Eager for an opportunity elsewhere, the Italian yet again prepared to pack her bags.
After a one-hour phone call with Trinity Head Men's and Women's Tennis Coach Lori Shulman, Pellegrini set her sights on exchanging the small Charlotte suburb for Connecticut’s bustling urban capital. In recalling that initial phone call, she was assured by Shulman that Trinity would value school first and support her academically. Although strong performances in the nation's strongest Division III league, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), were part of the deal, Shulman made clear school was the priority. The phone call certainly resonated with Pellegrini, and by the beginning of her junior year she officially became a Bantam.
Since Pellegrini's arrival on Trinity's campus, she has found a new sense of community with both the tennis team and the surrounding faculty. She recounts the support and guidance she has received from the professors throughout her two-year stint in Hartford, specifically adding how helpful the economics department was when it was time for her to submit graduate school applications. "The economic department has become like an extended family to me," says Pellegrini, reflecting on her interactions with the department.
“Although Elena has only been at Trinity for two years, she is making the most of it and is extremely appreciative of her experience as a student-athlete," says Shulman. “She is also a very strong student and plans to stay in the States for graduate school next year.”
Since her arrival in the fall of 2018, Pellegrini has made her mark. In her rookie season for the Bantams, she posted a 7-10 individual match record in the top half od the Trinity singles lineup and a strong 8-4 doubles mark with classmate and teammate Julia Brogan (Falmouth, Maine). Preceding the unfortunate cancellation of most of the 2020 spring season, Pellegrini won her lone singles match and earned a 5-1 record during doubles play in the fall and in the Bantams 9-0 shutout against Smith College on March 7. Determined to improve on last year’s numbers, Pellegrini was more than ready for a strong final spring on the court.
As expected, Pellegrini has also made strong inroads in the classroom. She has decorated her academic schedule with numerous math and economics classes, all of which have paved the way for her acceptances into economics PhD programs to both the University of Massachusetts and George Washington University. Pellegrini again finds herself faced with another big schooling decision and one that she is hopefully more prepared for this time around.
While many students are home with their families during this uncertain time, Pellegrini has been forced to remain at Trinity. She continues to grapple with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 outbreak in her home country and suggests the United States does what it can to avoid the pitfalls that Italy fell into. “I thought Italy would serve as a lesson”, she laments. “But everyone is falling into the same trap”.
Pellegrini’s insight into “the new normal” for many Italians is unrecognizable for many outsiders. Individuals are banned from straying outside their properties, citizens must display paperwork while making essential trips to supermarkets or pharmacies, and police are handing out fines to those unwilling to follow government-mandated guidelines there. She confirms her family is safe and healthy for the time being, and admits that she may have a better situation than many of her fellow Italians back home. This is undoubtedly not how she envisioned her college years ending.
Pellegrini’s four years of schooling in the United States showcases just how different the college experience looks for students across the world. From a promising tennis prospect, to a former Division II athlete, and finishing as a NESCAC competitor, Pellegrini’s journey has not been straightforward. Even with her final spring season canceled due a worldwide pandemic, she reflects on her college experience with pride, humility, and joyfulness. As Elena Pellegrini prepares for life after college, her trials and tribulations as an international student-athlete have equipped her with the tools for success.