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Bringing Blue and Gold to the White House

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By Nicole Duran

Published Mar 24, 2010 1:45 PM


After graduating about a decade ago, neither actor Kalpen Modi '00 nor documentary filmmaker Jason Djang '97 expected to end up in the White House. Both now work for President Barack Obama (although Modi recently announced he's returning to Hollywood), with Modi in public engagement and Djang in new media and online video. UCLA Magazine gave them both the Q&A treatment, as well as three other Bruins — Lynne Weil, Brian Jones, and Lezlee Westine — making a difference on the Hill.

Kalpen Modi

Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; also known for roles on TV's House and 24, and in the Harold and Kumar movies.

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What was your major?
KM: I graduated with a BA in Sociology and a specialization in theater, film and television.

Where did you grow up? How did you end up choosing UCLA?
KM: I grew up in New Jersey and wanted to find a program that was strong both academically and artistically. At the time, I had a particular interest in studying film and television, so when I was accepted, I thought UCLA was the best fit of an academically solid school with a competitive arts program and the opportunity to pursue a film career outside of the classroom.

What did you like most about attending UCLA?
KM: The diversity in student body and types of courses offered. Sadly, I hear that both have decreased over the last several years.

Are you using what you learned (from your major, your classes) in your work now?
KM: In a way, yes. I tried to take advantage of the broad coursework offered as much as possible. I remember taking a premed class: LS 2: Cells, Tissues, and Organs as an elective because I thought it was interesting. While utterly useless in a traditional sense (I wasn't going into medicine), believe it or not, that exposure helped provide some of the tools I used in artistic depictions of science folk as an actor. There are three main areas of my current job: arts outreach, youth outreach, and Asian American & Pacific Islander outreach. Of those, the arts and AAPI portions are directly related to my UCLA coursework. But undoubtedly, I credit a lot of the outside-the-classroom opportunities on campus with providing me with the tools to take risks and end up on the path toward what I'm doing now.

What was your UCLA experience and how did UCLA prepare you for where you are now?
KM: I really enjoyed the diversity all around: taking both premed and film classes, pledging a fraternity but studying a lot. I like the idea of balance, having the opportunity to experience and take advantage of a broad range of interests.

Read about other Beltway Bruins. Alumni in D.C. media, on the Hill, and in the White House are making a difference.

When you were a student, did you ever foresee your career taking this direction?
KM: The goal was to work in both the arts and public service, so while these were the careers I strove for and the reason I chose UCLA, I still feel incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities.

How did you get here?
KM: I spent a couple of years after graduation living in dumpy Los Angeles apartments working odd jobs for gas money and trying to get my foot in the door of the film industry, then was fortunate enough to begin working as an actor. I would take breaks where possible to pursue studies at one of Stanford's graduate programs in International Security (which has a very convenient online web interface for distance students), then started lecturing and teaching workshops at universities, which led to a job as an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in Asian American Studies, Film Studies, and Sociology. I joined the President's campaign back in October of 2007 as a volunteer in Iowa working on Youth Outreach and Arts Policy. There was a writer's strike going on in L.A. at the time, so I was able to pack up and move to Iowa without much repercussion. Once he won the Iowa caucuses, I traveled to another 25 states on behalf of then-Senator Obama. What was most striking was the desire by young Americans everywhere to see fundamental changes in the cost of education and access, national security, the economy, and environment.

What's the most rewarding part of your job? The hardest?
JD: I feel like every day I have the opportunity to do something unprecedented. Our department, New Media, is in fact new to the White House. Previous administrations had websites, but we've been able to take our online program to a new level. With regard to video, now we post every one of the President's speeches, every press briefing, various meetings and events, and produce some fun feature pieces like our "Inside the White House" series. And we push all this content out to various social networks. Knowing you're blazing new trails is pretty rewarding.

Jason Djang

White House Deputy Director for Video

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What was your major?
JD: '97, Physiological Science

Where did you grow up? How did you end up choosing UCLA?
JD: I grew up in Orange County. As an undeclared/undecided freshman, the vastness of UCLA's academic options was a big selling point. I had previously been set on a small liberal arts college, but after visiting the Westwood campus as a high school senior and getting a taste of UCLA's tradition, it just felt right.

What did you like most about attending UCLA?
JD: I was a basketball and football fiend. I loved everything about going to the Rose Bowl and camping out outside Pauley for big and small games alike. Travelling to Seattle for the '95 championship wasn't bad either. Beyond sports, UCLA is where I met my best friends — those who continue to be central to my personal life.

Are you using what you learned (from your major, your classes) in your work now?
JD: Not in the slightest! I spent my undergrad years cramming the Latin names of muscles and the Kreb's Cycle into my frontal lobe. I ended up not pursuing med school like my program peers and how I ended up where I am now is a great mystery.

What was your UCLA experience and how did UCLA prepare you for where you are now?
JD: My experience was a truly rich one. I walked the campus this past holiday season for the first time in several years and every corner brought up an almost palpable memory. While the object of my studies may not translate to my current work, the rigor of my program did help instill within me a level of discipline, attention to detail, and work ethic that has helped open doors for me throughout my career. These characteristics come into play here every day. As the director of video at a place like this, I have to make sure that our content maintains not only a certain level of production quality, but is consistent with the President's overall message. Add to that the myriad little tasks and responsibilities that hit me every day in such a fast-paced environment, I'm glad I learned the ability to multi-task while keeping focused on the big picture.

When you were students, did you ever foresee your careers taking this direction?
JD: A pre-med student with dreams of producing video ... at the White House? I don't know if I had even conceived of watching video on a computer by the time I graduated. I still used a Juno e-mail account on my dial-up. If I could have foreseen this sort of absurdity in the universe, I'd be a rich man.

How did you get here?
JD: I started working in film/video editing right out of college. I worked in advertising for a number of years before migrating to documentary film and TV work. In the summer of 2007, I read then Senator Obama's The Audacity of Hope and had determined that for the first time in my life I would get involved in the political process. And just two days after that, I stumbled across a job opportunity for a documentary editor for the Obama campaign. I applied, and eventually showed up at the controlled chaos that was the Obama for America campaign headquarters in Chicago. It was supposed to be a three-month gig. I would do my civic duty, help get a candidate in whom I believed elected, and return to my life. Never in a million years did I dream of eventually working in the White House. One thing led to another, and here I am.

What do you like best about your job? About Washington?
JD: I like that I get to have a hand in every stage of production. When I worked as an editor, I felt like an assembly line worker. Now, I either do or oversee every step of a production. But beyond that is the obvious amazement for this workplace. We have a water cooler in our office like most offices. But if you time it right, you can be filling up your cup just as your boss is leaving in a massive VH-60 helicopter out the window. That's kinda cool.

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