Mike Gillen (BARS ’78, MBA ’81) is a rare bird – not only does he have degrees from both the Monterey Institute of International Studies and its predecessor the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, but he is also the Russian professor who plays the bagpipes and leads the procession at every commencement. When you meet Mike, it all makes sense. He is a natural teacher who embraces a good challenge, whether in choice of language or instrument.
Growing up in Denver, Mike Gillen learned to play the piano at an early age. His gravitation to bagpipes did not come from his Scottish heritage but a relationship to a talented neighbor who gave him his first lessons. It could be said that serendipity – of sorts – also led Mike to master the Russian language. “On the day of my 7th grade registration I was sick,” he shares with a wry smile, adding that all Spanish and French classes were full by the time he could make his pick so Russian was all that was left.
Intrigued by the language and culture, Mike majored in Russian and music in college before coming to MIFS to complete his B.A. degree. After graduation he worked at the Defense Language Institute teaching and developing courses while pursuing his master’s degree at the newly renamed MIIS. He worked for a while in the private sector doing freelance translation work but came back to MIIS as an adjunct professor in 1985.
“At first my motivation was cynically self-serving,” Mike says of his decision to become a full-time professor a few years later. “There was a lack of qualified translators and I figured I would just train them myself.” In his close to forty-year affiliation with MIIS, Mike says the school has shed some of its funkiness and matured its mission, but remains essentially the same place. He loves seeing students overcome challenges and notes that “nothing comes easy for them here – it is all applied learning.” And the key to longevity as faculty: “You’ve gotta like young people!” It probably doesn’t hurt when they like you back.