The India Center Hosts ‘An Evening with Kal Penn’

The India Center at UCF welcomed actor, writer, producer and public servant Kal Penn for a book reading and discussion on Sept. 26, 2022.  Associate Dean Kerstin Hamann, Ph.D., interim director of the India Center, and Leila Chacko, director of public affairs of the India Center, welcomed the speaker and the audience of approximately 300 attendees. Penn read an excerpt from his national bestseller You Can’t Be Serious, in which he shared his experiences while pursuing a nontraditional career in the arts and battling the stereotypes that come with being the son of Indian immigrants. Following the book reading, David Dumke, executive director of UCF Global Perspectives and International Initiatives, and Sonia Arellano, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric, moderated questions submitted by the audience.

Known for his lead role as Kumar in the Harold and Kumar films and his roles on TV shows such as House and Designated Survivor, Penn shared the challenges he faced as he started his acting career, including battling racism and racial stereotypes. He also discussed changing his given name, Kalpen Modi, to his professional name, Kal Penn, to land more auditions.  Penn shared several anecdotes in a humorous way, remembering how his family pressured him to succeed academically especially in areas where he was less strong.  Penn struggled with science and math and his parents nudged him to do better than achieving a “B” grade.  A “solid B is an Indian F,” he told the audience, laughing.

Penn also touched on his time as an associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement under the Obama administration, where he worked as a liaison for Asian Americans, young Americans and the arts community.  He worked for the administration for two years, while taking a leave from acting.  He felt it was important to be involved in public service in an area in which he believed.  Penn encouraged young people to vote to make an impact on the community.

During the Q&A, Penn discussed the process of writing You Can’t Be Serious, which took four years to complete. It was a longer process than writing for television, in part because of the need for fact-checking.

“The India Center is honored to have Kal Penn share his experiences with the UCF community and also the Orlando community during this event,” said Hamann. “He has a unique talent to use humor when discussing serious issues without trivializing the issues themselves.”

“I am grateful that we were able to bring a speaker with such remarkable professional experience to campus,” said Chacko.  “The reading and discussion, which touched on numerous subjects, provided an interesting perspective for our audience.”

The India Center organized the event to work towards its mission of promoting the understanding of contemporary India and building ties between the United States and India.  The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Writing and Rhetoric and UCF Global Perspectives and International Initiatives and was free and open to the public. The UCF Alumni Association supported the event by providing a live stream and hosted a book club discussion of Penn’s memoir.


To learn more, watch Kal Penn’s appearance on “Global Perspectives”.

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