When Kal Penn visited Marquette Saturday, he wasn’t just stopping by on his way to White Castle.
Best known for his parts in the series “House M.D.” and the “Harold and Kumar” movies, Penn also stars for the White House under another role: associate director of public engagement. He spoke before a crowd of more than 100 in the Alumni Memorial Union.
“I got a phone call in 2008 asking if I could serve in a much bigger way in youth outreach,” Penn said. “I am honored to serve my country. I’m happy to do this. I thought it was a pretty incredible opportunity.”
Penn acts as a liaison to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, along with young voters, by speaking at rallies, universities and other public forums to support President Barack Obama’s reelection. Penn rose to the position in 2009 after advocating for Obama in Iowa during his 2007 election campaign and serving on Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee in 2008.
“I had never done anything political before I campaigned for Obama,” Penn said. “I was really impressed by the president and what I saw while working on the campaign in Iowa. There was also a writer strike, so there was no stoner movie to be had that year.”
Since accepting his political occupation, Penn’s acting career has been on hiatus. The actor’s move from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., led to the demise of his “House M.D.” character, Dr. Kutner, who was written out of the series in 2009 due to the actor’s new time commitment. At Marquette, he hardly referenced his acting and focused mostly on issues pertaining to the youth vote, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gave roughly 159,000 Wisconsin students a $2,100 tax credit on average toward tuition last year.
“I moved to D.C. for two years, and that’s when I got to see what the president was really like behind the scenes,” Penn said. “He is the exact same guy you see in front of the camera: incredibly smart, nice guy, very funny – all of that stuff is true. But in particular, I was really amazed at how much he stood up for young people, and that’s not something that I saw when I would turn on the TV. Whether it’s FOX or CNN or MSNBC or whatever it is, they tend to not cover stories that affect young people at all.”
Penn highlighted a story he heard from a friend on the White House’s economic team about a negotiation between Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner and President Obama as an example.
“Boehner said, ‘If you’re not willing to get rid of this tax credit that you’ve created, then it’s a non-starter – we’re not going to negotiate on anything else.’” Penn said. “So, the president stood up and he goes, ‘OK – well, I guess you guys get to explain to young Americans why you don’t think that they should have a shot at a fair education unless they’re wealthy,’ and he walked out of the room. I thought that was incredibly badass.”
Penn’s visit at Marquette caps his tour of Wisconsin universities, which also included stops at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Milwaukee, Whitewater, Madison, Oshkosh and Stevens Point. In addition to Wisconsin, Penn held student summits in 11 other swing states.
Marquette’s Students for Barack Obama and its Deputy Team Leader Margaret Grace, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, had a mere three days to coordinate space in the Alumni Memorial Union and get the word out about Penn’s visit after hearing from a campaign organizer that Penn would stop to speak at Marquette.
“It was a great speech. I got chills – I’m not going to lie,” Grace said. “It’s so nice when there are personal stories, like his friend who had to choose between eyeglasses and textbooks … and all of these things that have been made possible through the president – that he’s able to share that with us is pretty cool.”
Among those attending Penn’s appearance at Marquette was Alec Richard, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, who wasn’t there to simply be star struck.
“I didn’t really come here for (Penn),” Richard said. “I believe in Obama and I want to do whatever I can to help him get reelected.”