MONTEREY, Calif. – Though the U.S. Army has taught him much, if there is one thing in particular that Master Sgt. Mike Gabino has learned from the Army is that everybody has the ability to learn if you have the right instructor. That is why he strives to be the “right instructor” to his Soldiers as he gives back what the Army has given to him – opportunities.
Gabino is fluent in Spanish and has served in the Army since 1993. He is the noncommissioned officer in charge of Undergraduate Education at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey, California, which is regarded as one of the finest schools for foreign language instruction in the nation. All basic foreign language teaching at the institute takes place at the undergraduate education level.
“Part of being an NCO is to be a teacher able to coach, mentor and develop others,” said Gabino, which is standard throughout the Army, but at DLIFLC, the stakes are higher.
Education at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, speaks with Military Language Instructors, qualified NCOs who teach students in their language and serve as an example to them, prior to a graduation ceremony at the institute on the Presidio of Monterey, California, Sept. 15. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick Bray)
Considered one of the toughest challenges in the Department of Defense, the language school places enormous pressure on students from across the services – Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force – to succeed in only a limited amount of time. Proficiency standards for military linguists are high and getting higher. Students spend up to seven hours a day in class, followed by three hours or more of homework each night. Weekends are filled with extra studying, and that does not include the day-to-day requirements of being a service member. Dependent upon the language being learned, this routine can go on for six months to a year and a half. It is easy to see how students might feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Gabino meets regularly with the institute’s military language instructors, or MLI, qualified NCOs who teach students in their language and serve as an example to them. MLIs bridge the gap between the military units and the civilian staff in all eight schools and languages taught at DLIFLC.
Q: How has your experience helped you in your current position here?
A: I use a lot of my experience as a student in the military to mentor the MLIs. Experience is the foundation of what I became, and it taught me what right looks like.
Q: If you had a student who felt like he/she wanted to quit, what would you say to that student?
A: For students who may be struggling, I tell them you’re never out until you’re out. Don’t ever quit on yourself, but let the process run its course. Don’t jump the gun and make that decision to quit.
Q: With the enormous amount of effort that must go into being proficient in a foreign language, is it easy for students to fall into the habit of constant studying?
A: I fully understanding the push to succeed, but part of the learning process is knowing when to take a break and go out and decompress.
Q: What programs have you initiated to help students take their minds off class for a while?
Master Sgt. Mike Gabino (second from right), noncommissioned officer in charge of Undergraduate Education at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, enjoys a whitewater rafting trip in Northern California with his wife, Evelyn, and their two sons June 5, 2016. Gabino mentors Soldiers and other NCOs at the institute and also strives to inspire younger people as he volunteers in the community in Monterey, California. (Photo courtesy Master Sgt. Mike Gabino)
A: One such program is a module-based, mixed martial arts class that includes Jujitsu, Judo and Taekwondo. I worked with the institute’s leadership to set up the program so that it would not interfere with language class times and that a mixed martial arts class would be available if a student wanted to take it. Not only are they learning a new skill but they’re forgetting about class for a little while. They’re decompressing. Creating a balance is part of the learning cycle.
Q: What about students who prefer to decompress in other ways?
A: We’ve got people that are physical so they like to do physical stuff, but we’ve also got people that are more open to being mentally stimulated. So we incorporated the student learning center to be open seven days a week so they can use it and its resources as they see fit. The student learning center allows students to study in a more relaxed atmosphere than the library or classrooms and does not necessarily have to be used for only language study. Students can spend time there reading, get tutoring, attend workshops and watch foreign language movies.
Q: What else would you like to say about the students?
A: I think it’s important to give back. Our students go through a lot. We have some of the best students that we could ask for in the military regardless of service.
Q: When you are not at work, how do you spend your free time?
A: I enjoy my three favorite hobbies: watching movies, dancing and enjoying restaurants with my family. My kids take flight lessons, and occasionally we go scuba diving or whitewater rafting and skydiving together.
Q: Do you do any volunteer work in the community?
A: I volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club of Monterey County. In August, I gave a speech to the club. I told the kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from; you can make it.
Q: Where are you from, and how did you come to join the Army?
A: I am from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, and I joined the Army Reserve as an orthopedic technician in 1993 to pay for college. At the time, I only knew Spanish. So the Army sent me to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Q: When did you go on active duty?
Master Sgt. Mike Gabino, noncommissioned officer in charge of Undergraduate Education at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, speaks at the Boys and Girls Club of Monterey County, California, Aug. 25, 2016. “I told the kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can make it,” said Gabino. He mentors Soldiers and other NCOs at the institute and also strives to inspire younger people as he volunteers in the local community. (Photo courtesy Master Sgt. Mike Gabino)
A: In 1997, I went on active duty, switching jobs to become a cryptologic linguist. Then the Army sent me to study Russian at DLIFLC in Monterey, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish.
Q: Why was that?
A: One night I went out late to buy baby formula when I was hit by a drunk driver. I was medically dropped from the Russian course. After a long recovery, I was given the option to return to Russian studies, but I would have to start from day one. At that point, I had been at DLI for almost two years. So I asked them to reclassify me as a Spanish linguist. I took the Defense Language Proficiency Test and qualified as a linguist.
Q: But everything worked out well for you because look where you are today. What other opportunities did you pursue after that?
A: I earned a Master of Arts in Administration with a concentration in leadership from Central Michigan University and working towards a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. That hunger for education came from the Army. That’s when I became really passionate about learning new skills and teaching those skills to others.
Q: So, can you really learn anything from the right instructor?
A: I used to be bad at drawing. Bad at drawing. Well guess what? In one day, with the right instructor, she taught me how to draw. I never knew I could draw!
Gabino has been at DLIFLC since 2015. He has also served as the interim garrison command sergeant major for the Presidio of Monterey for more than 60 days during summer 2016.
This year, DLIFLC celebrates its 75th anniversary. The institute provides resident instruction in 23 languages at the Presidio of Monterey, California, with the capacity to instruct another 65 languages in Washington, D.C., graduating more than 220,000 linguists since 1941.
In addition, multiple language training detachments exist at sites in the continental U.S., Europe, Hawaii and Korea, spanning all the U.S. geographic combatant commands, in support of the total force.
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Mike Gabino, noncommissioned officer in charge of Undergraduate Education at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, smiles with the joint-service color guard in the background prior to a change of responsibility ceremony for the institute’s Command Sergeant Major at the Presidio of Monterey, California, June 3, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Amber K. Whittington)