Kumar Goes to the White House!

07/07/2009 at 10:40 AM EDT

Kumar Goes to the White House!
Kal Penn, left, on the job
Charles Dharapak/AP
What's the secret to a successful first day at the White House? All Kal Penn needed was a toothbrush, a bus ticket – and a new name. 

"I brushed my teeth, I did floss, I used mouthwash and then I took the bus to work!" Penn tells PEOPLE.

Monday marked Penn's first day on the job as Associate Director in the Office of Public Liaison, where he will work to connect President Barack Obama with the Asian-American and Pacific communities, as well as the art world.

He not only has a new job, but a new name: he will be using his birth name, Kalpen Modi, instead of his stage name, Kal Penn. "I never changed my name legally so it seemed logical to use my real life name," he says.

After a July 4 weekend of unpacking and settling into his new Washington D.C. rental, Penn says, "My life is much like that of my colleagues ... I expect to be treated just like any other staff member."

Penn, who announced his surprising career change in April, the day after his House character committed suicide, first got hooked on politics when he signed up to help with Obama's campaign in 2007. "I was really inspired by what I saw," he says. "It was something that just kept going."

His office will be within the White House gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the West Wing.

And don't look for Penn to step away from D.C. for a return to his Harold and Kumar films. "I hope the folks making those films respect my decision to take a sabbatical," he says.

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