Gap year travel led to personal growth for Mason freshman

Freshman Lillian Smeraldo

After she graduated from Woodgrove High School in Loudoun County in 2018, Lillian Smeraldo crisscrossed the country, enduring long days and even longer bus rides as a part of a world-class, competitive junior drum and bugle corps team from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Experiential learning, as she found out, comes in all forms.

“My first season was a blast and a truly eye-opening experience,” the George Mason University freshman said of her time with The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps. The group ranks as the oldest continuously active junior drum and bugle corps in North America. “I lived on a bus touring across the country with 150 other members for 85 days. I matured a lot emotionally and physically through the long, 12-hour rehearsal days and long bus rides throughout the night. But I loved being there, I loved doing color guard, and I loved everyone that I was with.”

The experience challenged Smeraldo both physically and mentally, but nothing like one day in particular on July 9, 2018. Fatigued from the constant travel and practices, Smeraldo and her teammates were excited about being in Daytona Beach, Florida, and enjoying one of the only three free days they would have all summer by spending time at the beach and washing their sweaty clothes.

Only their buses hadn’t returned from repairs and refueling, leaving the frustrated and worn-down team members to again practice instead. Only Smeraldo and her teammates remained determined to make the best of the bad situation, and it turned out to be the best practice that she could ever remember. They managed just two hours at the beach following the return of the buses, and the nearby laundromats were either full, broken or or closed by the time they returned.

But it’s what Smeraldo took away from the unexpected events that sustains the Honors College student now.

“I laughed, I cried and yelled with everyone in the corps that night,” she said. “I learned that shared suffering is honestly the best way to connect with people and make the strongest relationships. I learned that you can still work hard and succeed and have fun doing it when you have a good attitude and remember all the things you are grateful for.”

Her mother, Pam Smeraldo, said she wasn’t surprised about her daughter’s reaction to unexpected adversity.

“[Corps members] tend to be very tenacious and not let things stop them,” Pam Smeraldo said. “Working toward a common goal is a big deal. Lilly has definitely found her niche and these experiences are lifelong.”

The results of the summer were so rewarding that Smeraldo successfully auditioned for a second season with The Cadets and repeated the experience this past summer.

“I learned the mental capacity to not give up and keep pushing myself,” Smeraldo said, “to keep pushing myself and to always see life and all its obstacles in a positive way.”

Now a soon-to-be 20-year-old freshman, she hopes to apply what she’s learned to her college experience as well. She hopes to study something that combines her passion for history and learning languages, but she is also interested in physics and mathematics.

Smeraldo is no stranger to the Mason campus. Her older brother graduated from Mason in 2018 and the family’s home in Round Hill, Virginia, is only about 45 minutes away. Additionally, she competed with the Mason Open Class Winterguard team this past year, winning a gold medal at the Winter Guard International World Championships in Open Class Finals.

Smeraldo credited her experience with The Cadets for preparing her for just about anything she might face.

“I learned that I could be part of something so great and so much bigger than just myself,” she said, “that I have to pay attention to others, and that you only get the results you want when can cooperate with the people around you.”