Students entering a classroom in Royce Hall on the first day of their Sociology 19 course this quarter found their instructor fumbling with the projector, trying to make it work before the start of class.
Nothing new there. But then they took a closer look. Their professor looked familiar.
"We were all trying to figure out whether we were being 'Punk'd,'" said Paul Voge, 19, a first-year political science major. "Then he introduced himself."
It was Kalpen Modi, better known as actor Kal Penn from the television program "House" and as the character Kumar Patel in the "Harold & Kumar" film series. A 2000 graduate of UCLA, Modi worked for the White House in 2009-10. Modi was asked to return to his alma mater this quarter to co-teach a Fiat Lux course titled "Hope, Change, and Fist Bumps: Young Americans and The Obama Presidency."
As with most Fiat Lux seminars, which provide students and faculty with small group settings to engage in meaningful discussions on a range of topics, this one hasn't disappointed: On Wednesday (May 7), the 18 students in the course had a chance to meet President Obama on the tarmac at LAX as he got off Air Force One.
Experience of a lifetime
"Coming into the class I expected it to be a learning experience," first year political science major Jazmin Samano said. "But now I'll have an experience to remember for the rest of my life."
During the few minutes Obama interacted with the students, he shook each students' hand and asked everybody's name. He also joked around with his former aide, asking the students whether Modi was actually teaching them anything, said freshman applied math major Maggie Sharpe. The students also got to take a group picture with the president.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I can't believe I was able to see Air Force One land, let alone meet the president," Sharpe said. "I'm in shock."
Before Air Force One landed, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came over and shook all the students' hands, posed for a photo and talked to Modi about his next television show.
The presidential meeting was thanks to Modi's work with the White House. After campaigning for then-Sen. Obama’s successful presidential bid, Modi was hired as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. There, he focused his efforts on getting young voters interested and involved in the political process. And last fall, Modi was appointed to the president’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
That unique experience inside the presidency was what motivated Stefan Timmermans, chair and professor in the Department of Sociology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, to invite him to help teach a Fiat Lux on the topic.
"The goal was to give our undergraduate students an opportunity to bring in a top-notch guest lecturer with experience in engaging young people in politics," Timmermans said. "Kal had an interest in developing some of his experiences at the White House in a more systematic way and this topic dovetails greatly with the department's strength in political sociology."
During the quarter, topics have ranged from the 2007-08 primary season, to the DREAM Act, to energy and the environment. Each class has featured a guest speaker, usually a White House staffer.
"Given the nature of the Fiat Lux seminars and the small class sizes, it seemed like a great opportunity to teach a course that focused on the role that young Americans played in campaign organizing, technology, policy, and governance issues related to the Obama presidency," Modi said. "I also try to balance traditional academic and press readings with primary-source documents like old campaign event memos."
In a recent class, the topic revolved around the successful repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which Modi and his White House colleagues helped build public support around. Modi explained the political process that is required to pass legislation, the role of White House aides in furthering the president's agenda, and even explained how the West Wing is organized.
Keen interest transcends party lines
Modi says the students' interest in class topics shows a generation that is civically minded.
"The students seem keenly interested in the role their peers have played in the electoral and governance process both under President Obama and more broadly," he said. "I have what seems to be a decent mix of young conservatives and progressives alike, which is refreshing. They tend to raise some very thoughtful questions about process, policy and politics."
For Voge, the experience underscores the unique opportunity offered at UCLA.
"This has been a portal into the White House past the press, past anything you see on television," he said. "It's an unbelievable opportunity to talk to those who have actually worked in the White House."