Welcome to AquariumAdvice.com
You are correct in that it was a great gift and that a tank can take up to a month to stabalize.
I'm not sure how much you already know, but kudos for at least knowing you need to learn more!
Here's a couple articles from our Articles Section
Cycle Without Fish
and a great list of Recomended Books
from our reccomended reading section.
basically, your tank is a little ecosystem all on its own. In order for that ecosystem to work it needs a certain amount of bacteria. That bacteria needs a place to live. it lives in your sand and rock. when you set up your tank there's very little of that bacteria so you add the sand and rock to the tank and add a piece of uncooked fresh shrimp and let it rot in the tank. sounds nasty, but it's better than using a live fish as the conditions in the tank are horrendus. Test the water as described in the "Cycling without fish" article and once your ammonia and nitrites are zero, do a heavy water change and you can add your cleaning crew to the tank and get your first fish to put into quarentine. Be perpared for an algae bloom as 90% of new tanks get a bloom of algae shortly after the cycle finishes.