Kal Penn delivers Asian Pacific American Heritage month keynote speech

Television and film star and former White House employee Kal Penn delivered the Asian Pacific American Heritage month keynote speech Thursday night, giving details about his acting experience and work in Washington, D.C.

Penn, who has starred in films such as the "Harold and Kumar" series, the "Van Wilder" series and "The Namesake," as well as television shows "How I Met Your Mother" and "House M.D.," spoke about his early career as an actor, education and experience working as Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement. The speech was held at Warriner Hall's Plachta Auditorium, and about 750 were in attendance for the event.

Penn was paid $30,000 for his visit to CMU, and the event was sponsored by the Multicultural Academic Student Services and Asian Cultural Organization, along with the Office of Residence Life, the College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Communication and Fine Arts.

Penn started his speech by talking about his beginning in the film industry, and said he lived in a beat-up apartment in a rough area of Los Angeles while he first tried to make it as an actor. Penn credited his role as Taj Mahal in "Van Wilder" for launching his career in films, though he was reluctant to take the racially-profiling role at first.

"So I read the script and actually thought it was pretty funny for the most part except the things that were really sort of perplexing like things that had to do with the character's ethnicity that I didn't understand why they had to be there," Penn said. "Because ultimately, he was an 18-year-old trying to get laid in college, which I thought was pretty universal. At least that was my experience."

Penn then discussed his experience working in the White House, which started after he began campaigning for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Penn said his experience working for the president included pushing for the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" bill, along with outreaching to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and American youth.

"There were three things that I did. I worked in the Office of Public Engagement, which is essentially the outreach arm of the White House... and I was heading youth outreach, art outreach and Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach," Penn said.

"The honest truth is that what I decided to do, you know, taking two years off and serving my country, is really essentially the same as what millions of political people do all the time," Penn said. "To be fair, lots of other political appointees on both sides of the aisle leave private-sector jobs for public-sector roles temporarily."

Penn acknowledged a few students who mentioned him on their Twitter accounts when he first came out, including Muskegon junior Chelsea Marks, who said she didn't expect him to respond to her message, which encouraged her followers to come to Penn's speech.

"It's great that, instead of promoting making money, he was promoting getting involved and going into something that you believe in and trying to make a change," Marks said. "It was definitely inspiring."

Lansing junior Tony Vang, president of the Asian Cultural Organization, said he thought Penn's speech was inspiring for students wishing to get involved or follow their passion, and said he was impressed with the keynote speech.

"He's often portrayed in movies as a dumb guy or a stoner, but when he he started talking and knew so much about politics and the media and cultural changes, it really reaches out to the youth," Vang said. "It was something that everybody could relate to"