For a young lady who nearly lost her life 22 years ago, she is full of it now.
In the summer of 1999, Ashley Josay Zullo was involved in an automobile accident, suffering head, knee and other injuries.
Two of her closest friends and schoolmates at Monessen High School were critically injured in the wreck. Zullo’s vehicle was hit by a drunk driver, who died in the crash.
“We were out having some innocent fun on a summer night,” Zullo said.
In addition to Zullo having brain trauma and a knee injury, Ricky Tyburski and C.J. Salvino were also injured in the accident on Route 201 in Rostraver. Tyburski suffered facial and head trauma and a broken jaw, shoulder and elbow. Salvino, who had to be cut out of the car, had multiple injuries to his leg and hand. He remained in a coma for weeks. Tyburski was in a coma for a couple of days. All were taken by medical helicopter to Allegheny General Hospital.
“I woke up in the hospital and had no idea why I was there or what had happened,” Zullo said. “There was so much therapy. It was tough moving forward out of it. I couldn’t remember things.”
Randy Marino, then the principal at Monessen High School, said an accident like that one Aug. 12, 1999, shakes the school, the district and the community.
“Monessen is a unique community,” said Marino, who has since retired. “When tragedy hits, it becomes like a family. When people get word, it’s like a family springing into action.
“As a school representative, you support the (injured) students and reassure families that the district and school will do whatever they need to do to accommodate their child’s continued education.
“As an educator, there’s a line that ends with legal obligations. But there are moral obligations. I think all people in education feel there is a moral obligation to kids. In a small school like (Monessen), it’s like it’s your own kids. When something like that accident happens, you have the feeling that it’s happened to someone in your family.”
All the injured eventually recovered, but not totally.
Zullo, who specifically fought through the trauma and travails, returned to academic excellence and playing sports – her beloved softball in which she was a top-notch shortstop and added soccer to her life.
After graduating from Monessen in 2001, she attended Bethany College. While she decided against playing sports, Zullo flourished academically. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations. She later earned a Master of Education in elementary education from Seton Hill University, where she he began her professional career, working as an admissions counselor.
Zullo was elevated to director of admissions, serving in the position for five years.
In that role, she led the Seton Hill’s recruitment of the largest new student class in its history. In the previous four years, she directed three of the institution’s largest new student classes.
In September 2017, she was hired as Thiel College’s vice president for enrollment management.
When she was hired at the Greenville-based institution, Thiel’s president, Susan Traverso, said: “Zullo’s record of success recruiting students, razor-sharp focus on the admissions process, and superior experience with effective marketing and campus event planning (would) help Thiel take the next steps in its strategic plan, and that (Zullo) appreciates the value of the liberal arts to open career opportunities for students.”
Zullo is unique in that she looks for ways to give students the best situation and chance to succeed and to have a great college experience. She diligently reaches out to her network of contacts to help in recruitment of student athletes, making calls to find out the personality of a potential recruit, behavioral characteristics and ability.
“I like helping people,” she said. “I had so much support growing up and through the accident and recovery. People were there for me. I cherish that and will never forget that.
“As a vice president, there can be less contact with students and recruits. I never want my direct involvement with them to stop. I want to be helpful to people so they have a positive experience and know they have my support.”
Zullo and her husband, Robert, a professor at Westminster, reside in Hermitage with their 5-year-old son, Cameron.
Arlee (Fafalios) Dulak, who was best friends and a classmate with Zullo in high school, said it’s been a long, tough, road for her bestie but hard work, a great support system and a genuine love to help others has led to her success.
“She’s worked her tail off,” said Dulak, who is a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “She’s earned everything that she has achieved. Ashley overcame a lot. It’s incredibly impressive.
“She’s at a high level, clearly eager to work and help. She loves to be present and be involved when important decisions are made. At Seton Hill she grew programs and increased the numbers. She’s very dedicated to her job and to the success of Thiel College.”
A tough road
The accident changed the course of Zullo’s life.
It was an academic struggle, battling short-term memory loss and finding ways to relearn how to participate in class and to study and take tests. She credits the unending support from her mother, Lynn, and father, George, who reside in Monessen that helped her grind through.
“That was probably the worst night of our lives,” Lynn Josay said. “Every parent dreads getting a call like that. It was so emotional because of the other boys who were hurt so bad. I knew Ashley would be all right.”
Eventually she was.
“When I look back, it was such a rough time,” Zullo said. “Relearning things, finding the best way to do my homework and how to study with short-term memory loss.
“Half of my schoolbooks were on (audio) tape,” Zullo said. “I had to put forth effort and study. Before it was just natural.
“The teachers and administration at Monessen helped me ease through the change in the way I was educated – by the patience they showed, the adaptations they made and the strategies they used.
One such tactic came in French class.
“We had to do dialogues in class, and for me it was really hard,” Zullo said. “To go in front of the class and do that was difficult for me. I asked the teacher (Cinda Maxwell) if I could turn away from the other students and face the chalkboard.”
It put Zullo at ease and allowed her to complete the task.
Maxwell recalled how the faculty and administration adapted to the needs of all three students and allowed them to find postaccident success.
“We received reports from the neurosurgeon,” Maxwell said. “They explained where Ashley was. We allowed her extra time to complete homework and to take tests. We all knew we had to give her time to focus. Most of the kids in that class were from the same friend group. They were sensitive to Ashley’s situation and needs.
“We would work on things after school and the administration gave her extra time in class. Ashley’s recovery and achievements throughout her life are truly miraculous. It’s because of the person she is. She’s driven.”
Back in action
As her academic status improved to the high level she had been prior to the accident, Zullo rebuilt her physical strength to the point where she enjoyed success on the Greyhounds’ softball team.
She became an all-section shortstop, and the girls soccer team’s starting goalie her senior year. She never played soccer before that year. She helped the Greyhounds reach the WPIAL playoffs for the first time.
“Ashley was the missing piece,” said Dulak, who helped convince her friend to play. She was a good shortstop. We knew she had the hands to be a goalkeeper.”
The accident left Zullo with severe injuries to her left knee. Staples, which helped repair two gashes, remained in the back of her head.
“They said any activity I could have in the future was mainly dependent on what happened with the knee,” Zullo explained. “The doctors really didn’t want me to play anything. I just rebelled. I wouldn’t give in.
“The doctors didn’t like that I had never played soccer, either. In softball, I had been a catcher for most of my career. After the injury I was restricted. But catcher was the only position I couldn’t play.
“After the accident I was worried that everything was going to change and I would not be able to do everything I used to be able to do, like playing softball or being able to be a cheerleader. Those are things you take for granted.”
Carl Dei Cas, the Monessen girls’ soccer coach at the time, said he “pretty much begged” Zullo to play.
“She had good hands and was a good athlete,” Dei Cas said. “I knew she could handle it. We didn’t do anything to put her in jeopardy. It took a lot of courage on her part.”
Maggie Kuhn, a sorority sister of Zullo’s at Bethany, said it’s Zullo’s personality, love of life and perseverance that allows her to do things no one could have expected.
“She’s just amazing, said Kuhn, a Ringgold graduate and head women’s soccer coach at Lock Haven University. “She never showed the affects of the accident at Bethany. She was always achieving academically. I am so incredibly proud of her. Everywhere she has left, she left it better than it was before her.”
Added Marino: “She was from an era at Monessen where the kids wanted the school to be successful. They cared about that. Ashley maximized her school experience.”
Even today, Zullo takes time out of her day to open an app and play scrabble or work on a puzzle to help with her short-term memory issues. She’s a master note-taker.
“It’s still rough sometimes driving at night on a narrow road,” she said. “I take more caution driving. I am hesitant and I’m frightened at times. If you tell me something, and ask me moments later, no way am I remembering it. I write it down.”
If Zullo hadn’t learned the value of life from her accident, she certainly learned it her senior year at Monessen, as it was an emotionally draining school year, with the deaths of two football coaches, longtime Greyhound mentor Jack Scarvel, his successor Roger Brandemarte and the passing of a classmate, Aaron Minardi.
“I just think everything happens for a reason, whether it be good or bad,” Zullo said. “Aaron and I were close. All of it makes you appreciate the time you have. You don’t know what is going to happen until it happens.”
At 38, and with her history of accomplishment, Zullo is a prime candidate to one day be a president of a college or university.
“I love my job,” she said. “I’m so much more appreciative of everything. I like being in a leadership position. But I like being a mom. Maybe when Cam gets older, I’d be ready. I have a good life right now that I am so grateful to have.”