Recent graduate and former FirstPoint USA client, Tom Saltwell, took some time out of his schedule to tell us about his time at Montana State University Billings. He tells us about his experiences throughout the process of obtaining a scholarship, life as a college athlete, and his plans for the future.
“My name is Tom Saltwell and I am from Chelmsford, Essex. Throughout youth football level, I played in a number of local teams as well as a number of Professional Development teams including: West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspurs, and Southend United. I won the Eastern Junior Alliance League with Tilbury FC. I moved to Maldon and Tiptree FC at the age of 16 where I captained the Reserves team and broke into the First Team, making appearances in the Ryman South Division 1 and also the F.A. Cup. I attended Great Baddow High School, where our year won the District Cup every year, and also won the Essex Cup in Year 7. It was at Great Baddow High School where I first heard about going to America to play football and gain an education.
I had heard about American Scholarships sheerly through word of mouth. In Year 10, I had a friend at school who told me his brother had gone to America on a scholarship and immediately I was interested and decided that, that was wanted I wanted to do in the future. I thought that to gain an education in England/United Kingdom, I would be put into enormous debt. I was also set on the idea of going to another country and experiencing a completely different culture whilst completing my education – as well as having the chance to travel around whilst out there.
When I told my parents that I wanted to go to America, to get a scholarship and to study, they were over the moon. I feel extremely lucky to have parents that were so supportive from day one, as I know this is not the case for all Student Athletes. My advice to parents that are unsure on American sports scholarships, would be that your children have a once in a life time opportunity, and although you may not want to see them go, they can always come back – just try to be as supportive as possible.
The process of gaining an American Soccer Scholarship itself was a roller-coaster for my parents and I. After announcing that I was interested in going over to America, we immediately started searching the internet for companies that helped athletes gaining American Scholarships. There were a number of companies that offered American Soccer Scholarships, but the company that stood out the most, by far, was FirstPoint USA. I sent FirstPoint USA an email to ask some general questions and they replied instantly and professionally, explaining what their company was about and how they advertised players to American coaches. What also made my parents and I favour FirstPointUSA, was the fact that their employees had predominantly been Student Athletes themselves in America, so they had already been through the process and had first hand knowledge of what it was like. After a trial day in London, I soon found out that FirstPointUSA wanted to take me on to give me the opportunity to gain a Scholarship in America. I still remember that phone call to this day. From then onwards, FirstPointUSA helped my parents and I through every single step of the way. Along with the phone call from FirstPoint USA stating that I had been accepted, the most exciting part of the process was getting calls and emails from American coaches saying they were interested in me. I felt like a professional player! To hear the phone ring and have an American accent on the other end of the line brought the biggest smile to my face and it was all so exciting. One phone call however, above all, really enticed me.
One evening, I received a phone call from, then Montana State University Men’s Soccer Head Coach, Dan McNally. I could tell that Dan was really interested in me as he already knew everything about me as a player and a student. This made me realise that he had put in a lot of effort in finding out my background information – he made the best first impression I could have asked for. At the end of the phone call, Dan told me that he was flying from Montana to London, specifically just to watch me play in the London Showcase. It brought on a lot of nerves but I could not wait to show Dan it was worth him making the trip. When I arrived at the showcase, Dan immediately introduced himself to my family and I. He told me to relax and to just enjoy myself. After playing the games, Dan took my family and I into an office to tell us more about the University and Soccer Programme, insisting he wanted me to be a part of the team. With all the hard work that Dan had put in to find out about me and meet me, I knew then that the only place I wanted to go to was Montana State University Billings. No other school was going to change my mind, even though I had recorded at least 16 other offers from all over the States.
When I first landed in Montana I really did not know what to expect. I had not visited before, and I really had not realised how big America was. When I saw the campus and the facilities that were on offer, it seemed like a top professional club in England; it was amazing. Everyone was so nice and welcoming, I felt as though I hadn’t left home. What also helped, was that my team had a number of international students that had all been in the same boat, so they were more than happy to make me feel welcome and help me settle in. One thing that really stood out to me about the facilities at MSU Billings, was the Athletic Training Room, which is essentially the physio room. The machines and technology in there are to get people to recover from injuries quicker or just recover after a hard day of training, and are incredible.
Balancing the life of being a Student and an Athlete is far from easy and you need to be a dedicated individual to be able to do both. So many times over my four years I have seen outstanding players be unable to play or train because they simply did not try in the classroom. School work is more important that football at the end of the day. If you do not perform in the classroom, then you run the risk of being unable to play and train for a whole semester. Schools and Divisions differ on what the academic requirement is to be eligible to train and play, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to go to classes and do the work. Throughout the season you will fly to away games for a week at a time, and that is a week missed of school. My advice would be to get friendly with your professors so they understand the situation and can send you class work whilst you are away so you do not miss out. Coaches will also allocate Study Hall time whilst you are away too, to help you stay on track. I am unsure what it is like for other University Teams, but my coach made sure we did at least 4 hours of studying a week, even whilst we were away to keep on top of things. There are also tutors available at the school where you can get help.
The highlight of my career at MSU Billings is hard to narrow down. I received honours such as Captain, Runner-Up Player of the Week in the GNAC Conference, as well as Defensive Player of the Tournament, and being included in the Team of the Tournament on a number of occasions. But I would have to say, the people I have met and the connections I have made in my time out in Montana have to be the highlight. Another highlight would include that my team, through a company called TeamImpact, adopted a 6 year old boy by the name of Sebastien Easton, to our team. Seb came onto our team because he was suffering with cancer, and the concept of the company was to get him interacting with a local sports team to try and keep his spirits up. Seb was an inspiration to our team. Only being very young, Seb was very embarrassed that he did not have any hair— due to his chemo— and always wore a hat. On the day of our annual rival match against NAIA Rocky Mountain College, Seb was supposed to take the celebration kick off and unbeknown to him, we as a team, had shaved all of our hair off to show him that hair does not matter and we are all his brothers. It was the first time in months that Seb took his hat off as he felt comfortable. That memory will stay with me forever.
The first three years of my four year college experience absolutely flew by. But soon enough, the time to figure out my future came, and I had to look into opportunities and decide upon what I would do after graduation. One opportunity available to student athletes is to become a Graduate Assistant of a college team. To be a Graduate Assistant of a team means that the University will cover your Masters Degree whilst you also work as an Assistant Manager of the team. These positions are very hard and few to come by though, so if you do get one then take it. This job will allow you to get an extended Student Visa, as well as being able to work on the campus to make money. If a Graduate Assistant job does not come along then you do have the option of applying for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) Visa, which will allow you to stay in America for one year, as long as you have a job that complies with your major. OPT’s are only available for Graduate students, and if you choose to apply for one, you have to do it the year you graduate, otherwise it is not an option. The OPT allows you to work anywhere in America too, so if you find a job related to your major in a different State, that will still suit.
When I graduated from MSU Billings, on May 6th 2017, I had already begun the process of applying for my OPT. The earliest I could apply for it was the 16th February. Every University has an International Director who will help you out with the application process. Upon finding out that my OPT application was accepted, I also found out that I am going to become a voluntary Assistant Coach of my team. I was unable to be the Graduate Assistant as the position was already filled, but by gaining my OPT, I am able to be just as involved with the team. I’m just so happy to be able to be part of the programme for longer and take up a different role in the team.
My main advice to anyone thinking of going out to America to gain a sports scholarship, is to pursue it and not to hesitate. You will never know if you will like it or not unless you try, and you will always have the option to go home. Secondly, do the class work. As previously mentioned, class work is crucial to a Student Athlete; if you do not keep up in class you cannot play. Lastly, and most importantly, just go out there and enjoy it. Take in every moment, the good and the bad, and try to experience as much as you can. If you come to America with negative thoughts then you will have a negative time, but if you stay positive, you will have the greatest time of your life. Every day that I was over here, I wanted to make sure that I did my family proud as they went to the end of the earth and back to support me. Bare in mind that this opportunity is not just for you, it is also about representing your family and making them proud.”
We’d like to thank Tom for taking the time to tell us about his experiences at MSU Billings. It sounds like he has had a fantastic four years, and we wish him the best of luck for the future.