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Basketball Player from Mali Scores a Job at Carderock

By By Kelley Stirling, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division Public Affairs | April 25, 2018

WEST BETHESDA, Md. — Saliou Telly's path to becoming a mechanical engineer in Carderock's Structural Acoustics and Target Strength Branch is not only different than any other person at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, but also very interesting.

As a high school student growing up in Mali, in West Africa, Telly had no choice but to study math and science. The education system there, much like in the United States, provides standardized testing throughout the school years. The difference in Mali is the test in 9th grade determines what path a student takes in high school. For Telly, that was the technical high school, which feeds into the national engineering school. 

He also played soccer in Mali, as most kids did. But, as he grew taller, and taller, he was "recruited" from soccer to play for the country's basketball team. 

"I still believe I'm a better soccer player than a basketball player," said the 6-foot-9-inch Telly, adding that the basketball team was really bad at their initial junior tournament in France. "But the good thing is you can't teach height, and the rest of it we learned as we went. And a few years later, we went back, and finally we were among the better teams."

Telly said he was very fortunate growing up because his parents were very focused on his education. So when other basketball players were going to Slovenia, where academics didn't matter as much, Telly chose the U.S., where he said athletics and academics are tied together.

Telly became the first Division I student athlete in the United States from Mali, initially being recruited to play basketball for the University of Wyoming. However, because he spoke only French (Mali's official language), and other local dialects from Mali, he had to start at a prep school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the Notre Dame Prep School, to learn English and prepare for the SAT tests. 

Although he was supposed to be at the prep school for a year and a half, he easily passed the SAT test after just four months of arriving to the U.S. in February of 1997, and just days before he had to sign with a college to get in for the next school year. He said his motivation was the harsh cold weather. 

"In Mali, we typically have 90- to 100-degree temperatures in February," Telly said. He also said it helped that the SAT was a multiple-choice test, something he had never seen before. "When I studied the SAT book and realized that they gave you the answers, and you simply have to pick the right one, I was pretty confident."

The coach who had recruited Telly for University of Wyoming had just taken a job at American University in Washington, D.C., that summer, and he told Telly he could chose Wyoming or American University, if he preferred. 

"He told me AU was in Washington, D.C. I didn't know much about D.C., but I knew that Mali had an embassy here," Telly said. "That's a no-brainer, I'm going to American U."

The only problem with American was that it did not have an engineering program, and that was a necessity for Telly. When he visited the university, they did tell him about the three-two program where he could do three years at AU and earn an applied mathematics degree, and then two years at University of Maryland, College Park, to earn an engineering degree.

Although the program had never been tried before, Telly was confident he could make it work, even with the strenuous basketball schedule and the fact that he had to do the two programs concurrently. 

"AU was very accommodating and during my junior and senior year, they actually moved practice to five in the morning," Telly said. "Practice from 5-7 a.m., catch the bus to the Metro, transfer to green line, then to College Park for classes, then back to AU for practice."

Out of the deal, he did earn both degrees. He also teases that out of his deal with American University, he got a wife. 

"I call it making the most of my opportunities," Telly said, adding that he met her in their transition class during the summer prior to starting school at AU. 

After college, Telly began working for Potomac Tutors. And while the job was very rewarding, both financially and personally, he knew he didn't want to make a career out of being a tutor.

While going to University of Maryland for his master's degree, he met a Carderock employee during an advanced vibration course who kept asking Telly if he was looking for a job and that he should consider the Navy. Telly said when he told his wife he was considering applying to the Navy, she teasingly said, 'Do they know you can't swim? It's the Navy, you're going to be in the water all the time. Please tell them you can't swim.' Telly said he reminded her that Mali, unlike her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is landlocked and offered little opportunity to learn how to swim. However, his mom's reaction was more serious and concerned about his inability to swim when he told her he had an interview with the Navy.

So, during the interview, Telly asked if he was going to need to know how to swim, and when they said no, he jokingly said his wife and his mom would be relieved.

Telly has been at Carderock for 10 years, mostly working with the same code, primarily supporting target strength work, modeling and simulation, making sure that the Navy's submarines meet requirements. 

He is also now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland expects to finish this year. Telly is the beneficiary of In-House Laboratory Independent Research (ILIR), which is allowing him to do research in acoustic metamaterials for signature control for the Navy, while at the same time earning his degree. His department also awarded him the ability to use the Extended Term Training (ETT) Program, giving him time away from Carderock to complete his Ph.D., something he said he is very grateful for. 

"Overall, I think I've been fortunate to be at the right place and meeting the right people and preparing for the right opportunities," Telly said. "If I was to summarize my journey, it would be opportunity and preparation meeting. And I've really met some very helpful people and that's been the story all along, whether at Fitchburg, AU or here."

For the record, since joining Carderock and the birth of his two daughters, Telly said he has invested significantly in swimming lessons and is now proudly at his third repeat of level four. "So, don't pass on me for career advancement opportunities that requires swimming skills," Telly added jokingly.