North Carolina is the ninth most populous state in the United States. Its largest city is Charlotte, which after New York is the American city with the largest number of banks: this has led it to be, at the beginning of this century, the fastest growing area in the United States. The region of which Charlotte is part, stretching from New Jersey in the north to the central regions of Alabama in the south, is called Piedmont and is clearly named after the Italian region of Piemonte.
But this is not the only reference to Italy in the Tar Heel State. Also in Charlotte is the Casa della Cultura Italiana - North Carolina, presided over by our very welcome guest for this interview, an Italian very committed to the promotion of Italian culture in America, Professor Valentina Cecchi. We welcome her to We the Italians, and we thank her for being here
Valentina, you are one of the Italian scholars who represent the new Italian emigration to the United States: today you teach at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte... what events brought you there?
I was born and raised in Rome. While in high school at Liceo Virgilio I was an exchange student for six months in the Philadelphia suburbs. My American “dad” was a very active alumnus of Drexel University and introduced me to the university and its programs. I ended up not only going to Drexel for my bachelor degree, but also completing my graduate degrees (master and PhD) in electrical engineering, with a research focus on electric power systems.
While at Drexel, I was incredibly fortunate to serve as research assistant for Prof. Karen Miu, who is to this day a fantastic mentor. After completing my doctorate, I joined the faculty of electrical and computer engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2010, where I also joined the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center. Charlotte is a vibrant and growing city, with many opportunities.
You are President of the Board of the Casa della Cultura Italiana - North Carolina. Please tell us about this wonderful group
La Casa della Cultura Italiana – North Carolina (CCI-NC) is a non-profit organization aimed at promoting Italian business, technology, language, and culture in North Carolina. CCI-NC was founded in 2015 through the collaboration and dedicated work of the Honorary Consul of Italy to North Carolina, Prof. Dr. Claudio Carpano, and local Italian business leaders. Our mission is to build a strong relationship between the Italian community in NC and the local community, by promoting not only Italian culture, art, language, but also scientific and business endeavors. Thus, we champion the development of trade relations between Italy and NC and supports Italian companies based in NC and NC US companies interested in doing business in Italy.
Towards this goal, since 2016 we have organized a roundtable series that focuses on Italian technology and foreign direct investment (FDI) in NC. Each year, Italian companies and researchers/academicians come together to discuss their technological advances and how they are bringing this innovation to NC. The panel is often connected by a single industry or theme, while also representing the depth and breadth of Italian investment in our state. CCI-NC also often partners with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, for example when hosting the Italian Ambassador to the US and the General Consul of Italy in Philadelphia, who has also attended our roundtables.
In addition to the roundtable, CCI-NC also organizes another major event each year focused on promoting Italian culture. These events are in partnership with NC cultural institutions, such as Opera Carolina. We raise funds, primarily within the Italian community, to support local communities. For example, CCI-NC offers an Italian language scholarship each year for a selected deserving student from a university in North Carolina to attend a summer language program in Milan.
Finally, another initiative of which we are very proud is the Italian weekend school for children, Percorso di Lingua e Cultura Italiana per Bambini. We have approximately 30 children between 3 and 12 years old and six teachers. The school focuses on bringing children closer to the Italian language and culture through fun activities, narration, reading, and writing. The school meets every Sunday afternoon at the offices of an Italian company, Salice America, who generously lets us use their space. The school has also received partial support by the Italian government through the Ente Gestore and the General Consulate of Italy in Philadelphia.
More on CCI-NC can be found here.
In your community, are there more Italians who, like you, were born in Italy and then went to work in America, or are there more Italian Americans who were born in the United States but are proud of their Italian origins?
In our community, there seem to be more Italians born in Italy than Italian Americans. This is most likely due to the fact that there are over 100 Italian companies in the region. These companies bring part of their workforce directly from Italy. There are also, of course, Italian Americans, many of whom always participate in CCI-NC events and initiatives and are very proud of their origins.
Our monthly Aperitivo con Amici, which typically take place simultaneously one in Charlotte one in Durham, are very well attended by both Italian natives/expats and Italian Americans. In general, the population of Italian Americans seem to be quite a bit lower than in other large cities in the Northeast.
Are there any people, past or present, that are an important point of reference for Italy in North Carolina?
We are fortunate to have an incredibly active Honorary Consulate of Italy in North Carolina. Prof. Claudio Carpano has been serving as our Honorary Consul for over ten years, during which he has been instrumental in bringing our community together and developing a strong support system.
How is the situation of Made in Italy in North Carolina? Is there room for an increase in the Italian presence in Charlotte and in the other cities of the State?
Made in Italy is certainly very much appreciated in North Carolina, as it is all over the US. The quality and innovation of Italian companies meets the growing demands of people and companies in NC. Many Italian companies have found themselves here because of the ideal geographical location (midway point of the east coast) and cost of living while also being on the Eastern time zone.
Further, NC has the infrastructure and ecosystem to support Italian companies. For instance, the Honorary Consulate previously mentioned is able to provide passport and procure services to Italian Citizens registered in NC. Additionally, Italy is a stated focus for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which provides guidance and support. In addition to CCI-NC, there are also support companies such as Management inSites who has, for more than 15 years, been assisting Italian companies through their international incubator. Having these resources on hand makes it easy for Italians and Italian companies to choose NC! and North Carolinians are happy to have them.
We are approaching the sad anniversary of the second year since the pandemic began. Hoping that we will soon have put it behind us, how has the work of the Casa della Cultura Italiana in North Carolina changed, and what's in your future?
For obvious reasons, the social events and in-person interactions that are usually brought by CCI-NC have had to significantly slow down. The monthly Aperitivo con Amici has stopped in March 2020 but it is planned to re-start it in early Spring with outdoor get-togethers. Our events in partnership with Opera Carolina also slowed down. We still regularly sent out our monthly newsletters in an effort to keep our community engaged and connected. A few virtual Aperitivo con Amici were also held by the Durham group.
Despite the challenges, we were able to hold the roundtable on Italian technology and FDI on the food industry in October 2021 at the NC Food Innovation Lab. With the exception of some delays and a few sessions moved to online, we were also able to hold our Italian Weekend School for children uninterruptedly since January 2021.
Part of the funds that were planned to be used for the cancelled events in 2020-2021 were donated by CCI-NC to a local hospital in the form of protective equipment (masks).
If you could clone something Italian and transplant it to the United States, what would you choose? And vice versa?
I would transplant to the United States Italian creativity, inspiration (estro!), and zest (gusto – on everything: cuisine, fashion, product design, efficient use of space and resources).
Vice versa, I would bring to Italy the US positivity and optimism, the belief that everyone can pursue and achieve their dreams with some determination and hard work, without the paralyzing worry of external factors and bureaucratic obstacles!
What is your opinion of today's Italy as seen through the eyes of an Italian who has moved to the United States?
This is a tough question! A common sentiment that I perceive when meeting young Italians who have moved abroad is that there is a sense that their work is not appropriately valued and that new ideas are not welcome. In the meantime, there is always evident longing for and affection toward their home country.
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