By Madeleine Mulford |
September 21, 2022

Students may know Kalpen Modi, professionally known as Kal Penn, for his film and TV roles on House, Designated Survivor and the Harold and Kumar franchise. Or maybe they know him as a political activist and former associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement.

But after Penn’s visit to UCF, many students will leave knowing him as something else: a writer.

An Evening with Kal Penn will be held in the Student Union’s Cape Florida Ballroom on Monday, Sept. 26 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Penn will read from his bestselling memoir You Can’t Be Serious, in which he humorously examines his life, from growing up as the son of Indian immigrants to his experiences working in Hollywood and with the Obama administration.

Penn recalls in his memoir that as a college student, his decision to study theatre alienated him from other Indians in the community and he faced constant racial typecasting in early acting roles. However, he continued to pursue his dream and achieve tremendous success as an actor. He then took to politics to pave the way for others as an advocate for Asian Americans, the arts and young people across the nation.

For Emily Goiricelaya, a student writing consultant for the University Writing Center, Penn’s story hits home. As the daughter of immigrants, she relates to the struggles Penn endured on his career path. She believes hearing his success story will empower students like her.

“As a student at UCF, a recognized Hispanic Serving Institution with an immensely diverse student population, this is an incredible opportunity to hear from someone who has broken barriers in the creative sphere,” Goiricelaya said. “Kal Penn’s journey reminds us that we all deserve to take up space – no matter who we are or where we come from. Our cultural backgrounds and experiences should not be reduced or muted, but rather, celebrated and respected.”

The free event is co-sponsored by the Department of Writing and Rhetoric, which emphasizes writing across professions and cultures as well as civic writing for social justice. Sherry Rankins-Robertson, the department’s chair, and Deborah Weaver, director of the University Writing Center, believe that Penn’s story embodies many of the department’s values.

“Out of all the different roles he’s played, he’s choosing to come to UCF as a writer. I think that’s such a powerful thing for writing students,” Rankins-Robertson said. “We wholeheartedly believe there is nothing more powerful than a writer sharing their writing process, their culture and their journey.”

Rankins-Robertson hopes the event will demonstrate to students who are members of marginalized communities that UCF is a welcoming space for them to share their stories. She cites a quote from Jamila Kareem, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric:

“When we tell stories, we have a rhetorical agenda (for example, sharing experience or making an argument) and it’s important to recognize whose stories get told, why those stories get told, and how those stories are told,” Kareem said. “Often, majoritarian or dominant storytellers are not questioned, whereas marginalized storytellers are questioned before their narratives are accepted.”

In telling his story, Penn takes control of a narrative that was often told for him. Weaver hopes that hearing Penn share his perspective will encourage students to think about their own stories.

“When he acts, he’s a character in other people’s stories. But in sharing his memoir, he’s playing his own character,” Weaver said. “There’s a big difference between performing what other people write, and the decisions that go into being a character in your own book. And having the experience of hearing from that character is really valuable for students.”

An Evening with Kal Penn is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Registrants can submit questions for Penn, which he will answer live. People also have the option to attend the event virtually.

You Can’t Be Serious will be available for purchase at the event. The UCF Alumni Book Club will be hosting a virtual discussion of the book on Oct. 5. More information is available here.

An Evening with Kal Penn is co-sponsored by the UCF India Center, UCF Global Perspectives and International Initiatives and the Department of Writing and Rhetoric.

The Bachelor’s Degree in Writing and Rhetoric provides students with a comprehensive education that enables them to communicate effectively, persuasively, and ethically across a range of civic, professional, and educational contexts. Learn more about the program here