Written by Craig Schreiner
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student Luca Petrogalli’s clever TikTok videos about his life as the only resident on the second floor of Wells East Residence Hall have, as they say, gone viral.
“Obviously with the quarantine, I had more time,” he said about the period in March 2020 when UW-Whitewater and universities nationwide lengthened spring breaks, converted learning to online and emptied their residence halls in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But for Petrogalli, returning to his parents in his hometown near Milan, in northern Italy, was impossible. Italy already was locked in its own battle against the pandemic.
Always a TikTok user, the 19-year-old decided to post some videos of himself to pass the time during his extended staycation. For those not familiar with TikTok, think of a music, lip-syncing and dance social media site where you can imagine your personal diva or create a comedy sketch from your life like, say, being the only occupant on your floor in a high-rise residence hall.
Petrogalli invites us along for the ride as he scooters on a moving cart.
##uwwhitewater##foryou##quarantine♬ sleepwalk - 緒に
He fakes an echo in a hallway.
The Dorms are pretty scary ngl😳 ##uwwhitewater##dormlife##college♬ Hey! What? - iambannd
And he pretends to surprise himself as he voice-mimics a guitar from Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” He touches our hearts as he tapes portraits of friends to doors and walls to Maroon 5’s “Memories.”
Should this become a new trend?🥺 ##printyourfriends##uwwhitewater##friends##dormlife♬ Memories - Maroon 5
As his own producer, director, technical staff and on-camera talent, the man has a knack.
This is probably the smartest idea that I’ve ever had 💡 ##uwwhitewater##dormlife##college♬ original sound - luca_petro
One post opens with a closeup of Petrogalli that pans outward to show he’s in bed. Then the shot widens to show the bed sits next to a row of sinks in a very large bathroom. As the shots unfold, he says, “So since I’m stuck in a dorm for the quarantine and I’m alone here and I was tired of walking from my room to the bathroom, why don’t I just move my room to the bathroom? Hope you guys have a wonderful day!”
Many people came along for the ride. According to Forbes.com, which profiled Petrogalli in a piece titled “TikTok’s Unlikely New Star: An Italian Teen Stranded Alone at a Wisconsin College,” his videos have had some 1.3 million views and 300,000 likes. He’s been featured on Time.com and in the national and local media back home in Italy.
Viewers have offered to host him in their homes, but he’s staying put.
“I’m really happy about it, actually, because someone texted me ‘You really made me laugh,’” Petrogalli said. “I’m an extroverted person so I like to talk to people. I always try to think about something funny that talks about my situation.”
“I’m definitely an optimist and an extrovert,” he said. “I’m not really choosing (to be upbeat). It’s just me.”
Petrogalli, a finance major, is carrying a courseload of six classes online, so he no longer has the kind of time that spurred the flurry of videos over spring break. But he’s still posting every week.
“I never sit down to think of ideas,” he said. “During the day, it just comes to me, and I will write it down. I think it comes from my sense of humor. They (the ideas) just come to my mind.”
Some of the media stories about Petrogalli’s TikTok videos have left the impression that he might be the only student on campus. He is not.
According to UW-Whitewater Director of Residence Life Terry Tumbarello, some 102 students are still living in the residence halls. Petrogalli is one of 40 at the Wells complex who are in their original rooms. Others are at Cambridge Apartments. Some who were spread more thinly around campus are being housed at Starin Hall.
Petrogalli said he was anxious at first because events moved quickly and his friends were leaving. He was relieved to hear there was a plan in place at the university for students like him to have shelter and safety. He uses the kitchen in the basement of Wells East to cook meals —often his beloved pasta — and he has gotten to know the staff at Erberts and Gerberts, a sandwich shop nearby where he can still swipe his HawkCard, or campus ID.
“I wake up and do online classes,” he said, describing a typical day. “I will do my homework and have video conferences. I play basketball (alone) on the court outside of Wells. I go running in the nature preserve.”
“When I come back, I call my friends and spend time on social media or Netflix,” he adds. “It depends on the day.”
Meanwhile, he follows the news and talks and video chats with his parents, Giuseppe and Chiara, and with friends both in the U.S. and in Italy.
Petrogalli will finish the semester on campus, wait out the pandemic and return to Italy, where he says things are slowly getting better. A dedicated Warhawk, he plans to return for classes in the fall and beyond, until he receives his degree. He came to the university after a high school senior year in Bristolville, Ohio, as an exchange student. His own research and word-of-mouth from other students connected him with UW-Whitewater. He would like to stay in the U.S. for a career in finance after graduating.
Petrogalli’s online fame may fade as life returns to a new normal. While he is a self-proclaimed extrovert, he also is modest and kind. He has no plans to keep up his following as things change. The videos may simply be his gift of the moment.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When you are sheltering 4,500 miles from home during a pandemic, give the world a smile.