What Matters to U (WMTU), Student Government’s speaker series coordinated by student leaders for the University of Miami community, announced on Tuesday morning their upcoming speaker: Kalpen Suresh Modi, professionally known as Kal Penn.
Penn, an author, actor and former White House staff member in the Barack Obama administration, will be joining WMTU in an open conversation with the UM community on Sep. 29.
Tickets to the event are available online starting Thursday, Sep. 22, at 12 p.m. The event will be moderated by Geethika Kataru, a senior studying political science and motion pictures, and Professor Sumita Chatterjee, a historian with expertise in the South Asia diaspora.
Penn, an already accomplished actor, was offered a position in the Obama administration, an offer that he would accept and step away from his role in the hit television series “House” to fill. Penn served as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs from 2009 to 2010.
“I think its really cool to have someone that can merge knowledge of Hollywood and politics,” said AJ Zegans, a senior studying architecture.
Penn stepped down from his post to return to his acting career. Penn’s acting endeavors include a wide variety of movies and television shows including the “Harold & Kumar” franchise and “How I Met Your Mother.” Outside of his short bout in the White House and his acting career, Penn published his first book, “You Can’t Be Serious,” in 2021, has lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and been an active environmentalist and advocate for the arts.
“We wanted to bring someone who is environmentally conscious and also fits our mission of bringing diverse storytelling, reflection, and engagement,” said Meera Patel, chair of What Matters to U and senior studying microbiology & immunology and public health. “Kal Penn hits so many intersections of social identities that the team and I thought would be best to highlight for our first event.”
WMTU, established in the spring of 2019, aims to “engage the entire student body” in conversation with leaders, creatives and change-makers. In years past, WMTU has hosted speakers ranging from Bill Nye the Science Guy in the spring of 2019 to Armando Chrisitan Perez, better known by his stage name “Pitbull,” in the spring of 2022.
“We like to think that we can provide opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences or even seek out ways to engage with communities the way that our speakers do,” Patel said in regards to WMTU. “Bringing a wide range of speakers that touch on different topics can leave an impact on people in so many ways that I, nor my team, could ever imagine. We are extremely grateful for the opportunities and the support we have had and we continue to have.”
Since WMTU first began leaving hints on their Instagram page as to who the incoming speaker will be, students have waited on the edge of their seats in anticipation.
On Sep. 14, WMTU posted a graphic of the White House alongside an ink pen, resembling that of which the president sign’s executive orders with. Students took to the comments section by storm with guesses as to who the speaker will be.
“What if it’s Corey in The House,” said Jules Crosby in a comment on WMTU’s post, referring to Kyle Massey, star of the hit 2000’s Disney Channel show “Corey in the House.”
Other comments speculated that either a current or former executive branch member will speak. Some commenters speculated that former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Mike Pence, President Joe Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris will speak.
The day after, on Sep. 15, WMTU posted a second hint on their instagram page. This time the post was a graphic of a simple line drawing of a house with the numbers “409” over the door and an orange flame coming out the chimney.
Some commenters began honing their guesses. 409, the area code of the Beaumont and Galveston, TX, area, left some commenters guessing the speaker would be a U.S. federal representative from the area.
However, these many hunches were spoiled on Tuesday morning with the news that Penn will come to campus as the latest WMTU speaker later this month. Students are pleasantly surprised by the speaker.
“I definitely thought it was going to be a politician of some sort with the White House clue but the second one kinda threw me for a loop,” said Kyra Earley, a junior studying political science and theater arts. “Just proves you never really know who is gonna come to campus. I am really excited to hear from someone so knowledgeable and well regarded in the industry.”