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Tessa and Telly: From Friendship to AU Sweethearts

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The Tellys with their daughters, Alexa and Raquel
The Tellys with their daughters, Alexa and Raquel

For AU Sweethearts Tessa and Saliou Telly, it was friendship at first sight, not love. But during their first two years at American University, that strong friendship blossomed into love.

Tessa hails from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Saliou (who goes by Telly) was born and raised in Mali in West Africa. The couple first met in 1997 at STEP, AU’s Summer Transition Enrichment Program. STEP is a residential summer program that introduces incoming multicultural and first-generation college students to the AU community and helps them make the transition to college life.

When they met, Tessa says she was struck by Telly’s height. Telly came to AU on a full basketball scholarship, and at 6’8”, he certainly stood out in a crowd, but it was his silliness and similar culture that solidified their friendship.

Telly says he was first drawn to Tessa because she was modest, funny, and a “pretty Caribbean girl with sparkling silver wires in her mouth.” Those sparkling wires were Tessa’s braces, something Telly had never seen before.

Tessa says, “Through STEP we became very good friends… We shared very similar cultures. He also made fun of me, saying that I didn’t speak English because of my thick Caribbean accent. In fact, he would often joke that he taught me English. At the same time, I would say I taught him English because he was actually learning the language.”

Telly adds, “Being from a French speaking country, I was actually learning English at the time; however, others often asked me to interpret what Tessa was saying in her ‘slang’ or with a strong Caribbean accent. Needless to say, I spent most of that summer teasing her about that.”

Almost accidentally, their friendship turned into something more. One of Tessa’s homework assignments for her sophomore performing arts class was to see “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Arena Stage. But by the time the assignment was nearly due, all of Tessa’s classmates had already seen the play, so she asked Telly to accompany her as a friend – or so she thought.

Telly understood the invitation differently. “I was told much later that this was not necessarily a date as I interpreted at the time; nonetheless, I still think it was a date,” he recalls.

To Tessa’s surprise, Telly made his first move and rested his hand on hers during the performance. “I thought, hmm, this is interesting,” Tessa says, adding, “When we left and entered the Metro, he stood directly behind me. I thought, hmm, even more interesting. One thing led to another, and we began dating.”

Telly says, “I can’t remember one thing from the play we saw but this was one of the most memorable dates we have had. It ignited the love that we have shared for more than 15 years now.”

Tessa and Telly spent the rest of their time at AU together. Some of their favorite memories are of late night walks on campus when they would discuss anything and everything. “We had a tradition where anytime there were fireworks in the city, we would go on the very top of the Butler Pavilion parking garage and watch the fireworks. We had great conversations and enjoyed spending these great moments with each other,” Tessa says.

Tessa and Telly have now been married for more than 10 years and are the proud parents of two beautiful girls, Alexa and Raquel. Alexa is almost six and Raquel is three, and they attended All-American Weekend with their parents in 2014. “It was great to bring them back to AU and show them where mommy and daddy met, and to introduce them to our fellow classmates and professors,” Tessa says.

Tessa, CAS/BS '01, CAS/MS '03, is the director of the Wellness Center at American University, where she interned as a student. Telly, CAS/BS '02, is a mechanical engineer and works for the Navy while pursuing his PhD at the University of Maryland. He says he will always be grateful to AU. 

“As a student athlete on full scholarship, AU has given me so much, and I owe many of my life successes to the school. However, meeting Tessa is without a doubt the best thing that the university has given me and I am most thankful for that.”