Karan Nevatia: More than a gifted writer

Karan Nevatia left a profound impact on the Daily Trojan. He created the paper’s podcast department and advocated for wellness in the newsroom and beyond. (Photo courtesy of Smita Nevatia)

Late nights in the Daily Trojan newsroom were hardly ever quiet. Many days Karan Nevatia’s voice would stream into the hallway of the fourth floor of the Student Union as he would begin yet another rendition of his beloved TLC song, “No Scrubs.”

A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly

He’s also known as a busta

Always talkin’ about what he wants

And just sits on his broke ass…

Karan’s love for TLC would jump out at all moments both inside and outside the newsroom to boost morale and connect with the people he loved. His joy would always shine through the toughest days when breaking news left editors tired and weary after a back-to-back day. 

Karan, who died by suicide Sept. 11 at age 21, served on the Daily Trojan editorial board for two years, during which he reported on some of the most hard-hitting scandals that rattled USC, built the podcast department from the ground up and advocated for mental health and wellness across the newsroom and beyond. He was a friend to all Daily Trojan editors and staffers, brightening STU 421 with his wide smile and quick-witted remarks. Among family, Karan is remembered for his kind, extremely warm and calm demeanor, his mother Smita said. 

The world was too small for Karan and his effervescent curiosity, his father Ranajit said. Karan entered USC in Fall 2017 as a journalism major on a Trustee Scholarship and was a student in Thematic Option, learning about the power of the written and spoken word. Before his junior year, in June 2020, he declared an additional major in psychology to learn more about the intricacies of the mind and become more informed on ways to support others who have been affected by mental health issues.

While at USC, Karan found a home in the Daily Trojan newsroom. He joined the Daily Trojan before even officially beginning classes at USC as a staff writer for Summer Trojan in 2017 and served as a news assistant, news editor, podcast editor and associate managing editor in the subsequent semesters. He last served as deputy wellness director in Fall 2020. 

He was a go-getter from the start, recalled alumna Emma Peplow, who served as editor-in-chief during Karan’s first year at the Daily Trojan from Fall 2017 to Spring 2018. She remembers that for one of his first stories, Karan was sent to the Health Sciences Campus — a bus ride away — to cover a breaking news story. Peplow was nervous to send a freshman, but Karan insisted he wanted to do it.

“He worked really hard,” Peplow said. “But at the same time, he just generated joy. He could come into a lifeless newsroom and generate joy from nothing. And the joy would just last even after he left the newsroom.”

Karan was always in STU 421, whether he was writing, laying out pages, working with other editors or joking around with the rest of the masthead. He would give shoulder massages to editors, fill out crossword puzzles with them and was always willing to lend a hand even on his days off, Peplow said. 

“You almost had to drag him out of the newsroom at the end of the night because I think he would have stayed there and slept there overnight,” she said. 

Most missed, however, are his renditions of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” which graced the newsroom most days and would always brighten up the room when nights grew long and hard, said alumnus Tomás Mier, Daily Trojan Fall 2019 editor-in-chief who primarily served as Karan’s managing editor at the paper. 

“Even if it was late at night, he would just belt out the lyrics to TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ and make everybody smile, whether in the newsroom or our Daily Trojan gatherings,” Mier said. “He just had a way of bringing a smile to people’s faces that honestly I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody else who could do that with an off-tune rendition of a ’90s R&B song.”

Karan Nevatia attended Daily Trojan banquet at the University Club with his fellow news editors, managing editors and editor-in-chief at the end of Spring 2018. (Photo courtesy of Emma Peplow)

Many of his peers remember how quickly words would spill from his fingers whenever news broke and how clearly and authentically he would reflect a person in a story. That thoughtfulness and empathy were evident in the columns Karan wrote on everything from education policy to media literacy, Peplow said. They shined especially in his Fall 2020 column titled “On My Mind,” which dealt with navigating mental health. In this column, Karan was open about his own struggles in hopes of aiding other students undergoing similar ones.

“I think Karan’s writing will be one of his strongest legacies,” Peplow said. “He opened up his heart and his mind for all of us to feel a little bit less alone. His writing was so incredibly human. He respected his readers enough to tell them the truth but cared for them enough to create a space based on empathy and understanding. He talked to the reader like they were a friend.”

Alumnus Allen Pham, who served as editor-in-chief during Karan’s second year at the Daily Trojan from Fall 2018 to Spring 2019, said he first noticed Karan’s love and dedication to journalism while covering the scandal surrounding former campus gynecologist George Tyndall that surfaced in May 2018. Karan made time to help with breaking news, despite managing a full-time internship in Brooklyn, Pham said, recalling a particular day when Karan managed to work on a piece on the train home.

“I thought it was one of those moments where I realized, he literally cares — he cares so deeply about journalism and helping other people out when they need it most,” Pham said. 

As an editor at the Daily Trojan, Karan was known for many firsts. After launching what became Daily Trojan’s news podcast “General Education” in April 2018 during his semester as a news editor, he created the podcast department in Fall 2018 and fleshed out three podcasts that still run now, two years later. He also established the newsroom’s wellness initiative in Spring 2019 to support staff and promote camaraderie during long hours in production, which has also continued to grow.

Larger than life

Growing up in Foster City, Calif., Karan discovered his first love in reading, devouring more books than others normally would in their lifetime. At age 3, he was the first in his preschool to pick up a book, Smita said, and he was curious about everything he would consume. 

“It doesn’t matter which subject we would talk about,” Smita said. “If it is politics, if it is countries or what’s going on in the world, he would just be curious about it, find out and then he would know everything.”

Joy Thomas, a family friend who watched Karan grow up, fondly remembers Karan’s inquisitive nature, always creating his own projects to learn more about a topic or issue.

“He would notice other things that other people didn’t, but he was really, really tender-hearted,” Thomas said. “And as he grew up, even though he was introverted, he had a little bit of an entertainer in him where he would put on shows and sing for people and dance.”

A book Karan immersed himself in was Cornelia Funke’s fantasy novel “Inkheart,” in which the fictional author Fenoglio transported into a world that he created. When Karan eventually began writing his own stories, Ranajit said Karan did much of the same: immersing himself into a world larger than life itself. 

Karan’s favorite books were undoubtedly J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, which he started reading in elementary school. He became a clear aficionado of the films and visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park with his father, going on the rides several times. For his 21st birthday party in August 2020, he organized a Harry Potter murder mystery party over Zoom, fashioning his own mystery story rife with red herrings and secrets and providing each of his 30-something guests with their own intricate character storylines to uncover who poisoned Harry Potter. 

His obsession with “Harry Potter” did not end there. As a high schooler, Karan joined the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization where he connected with other fans while sharing his knowledge of media literacy and podcasts, among other topics. Each year, Karan would attend the Granger Leadership Academy as a student speaker and presenter and was always happy to work on projects throughout the year when asked.

“Everybody in our community has been talking about how smart he was,” said Janae Phillips, director of leadership and education at HPA. “He was so smart and such a leader. But the thing that everyone, of course, remembers was just, he walked into a room and it was just always so joyful.”

From a young age, Karan was always a writer. A few months before his sixth birthday, Karan began publishing his writing on a blog his father helped make for him, titled Karan’s Kreative Kamp, where he wrote about “everyday nothings to everything,” from his thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to his field trip to the planetarium.

At age 16, Karan was nominated for an award in fiction writing for a story written in the eyes of a 5-year-old Haitian girl.

“He made me cry with that article,” Ranajit said. “Because like, you’ve never been to Haiti, and [you’re] not a 5-year-old. How can you write this?”

Karan could write faster than most can read, Ranajit said. In 2016 and 2017, he successfully completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge twice, for which he was tasked with writing a 50,000 word novel within 30 days. 

In high school, this fervent love of writing turned into a love of journalism. As a part of Aragon High School’s newspaper The Aragon Outlook, Karan wrote stories across sections, including reviews, features, news, sports and obituaries. He served as editor-in-chief his final year. People looked up to him because he was insightful in how he approached his stories, said Scott Silton, Karan’s journalism adviser at Aragon.

“People were understandably attracted to a personality that respected them and listened to them and could do their job better than they did but wouldn’t ever make you feel even the slightest bit inferior,” Silton said. “[He’d say] ‘Nope, you should do this and here’s how to do this and let’s align the bottom here and fix this page.’ He was so gentle in his way. Our world needs more humble and curious people like him.”

Karan’s investment in journalism led him to attend the two-week California Scholastic Press Association journalism workshop in the summer of 2016. Nearly every subsequent summer, Karan returned as a counselor to help teach journalism to high school students. 

For Karan, these two weeks were always the happiest time of the year. According to Meghan Bobrowsky, a senior at Scripps College who met Karan in 2016 and since became one of his closest friends, Karan loved working with kids, and they all looked up to him. 

“All of them loved him,” said Bobrowsky, who also returned to be a counselor for several summers. “He would sing ‘No Scrubs’ for them, and he would be very goofy. He had a lot of different sides to him, and he was just really great with kids — and not even kids, like high schoolers. I think he was a role model for a lot of them … He was just an example for them of what they can do.”

During the two weeks, Karan was always beaming — that is, until the final days of the workshop when he would listen to sad music because he did not want to leave, said Mohi Andrabi, a senior at Occidental College who also met Karan in 2016. Andrabi said Karan always stole the show at the end-of-the-workshop talent show, singing his classic “No Scrubs” rendition. 

“I heard it like 100 times throughout the two weeks that we were at the workshop because the students are always like, ‘Karan, sing ‘No Scrubs’ for us,’” Andrabi said. “And of course, he was always more than happy to sing it at any time.”

Karan met T-Boz (left) and Chilli (right), two members of TLC, at a meet-and-greet event in Aug. 2019. (Photo courtesy of Tomás Mier)

An avid listener

It is without a doubt that Karan was enamored with TLC, of which Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was his favorite member. Since the end of his senior year in high school, “No Scrubs” quickly became his signature song, which became so well-known that NPR brought Karan onto an episode of “Weekend Edition” to share his love for the girl group and the iconic song.

“One day, I was just sitting in the yearbook office just working on something, and I was playing music in the background. And one of the songs I was playing was ‘No Scrubs,’” Karan said in the NPR interview in August 2019. “And because of who I am, which is, like, a nerdy Indian dude, kind of, like, took people aback when they came in and they saw me singing.”

At his high school, the CSPA workshop, the Daily Trojan and beyond, Karan became known as the person who would sing “No Scrubs” all the time. Numerous people have videos of Karan singing, his voice proudly booming over TLC’s voices, his fingers snapping to provide an accompanying beat. 

“It felt like I was putting smiles on other people’s faces, and that made me feel good,” Karan said in the NPR interview. “I’m an introvert, and, like, I’ve never been a singer. I’m kind of a horrible singer. But once I started singing ‘No Scrubs’ over and over, it kind of became second nature to me.”

In summer 2018, Karan and Bobrowsky attended TLC’s concert in Baltimore. It was the first time Karan saw the girl group in person, and Bobrowsky had never seen him happier. 

“They came out, and he was just so happy and singing all the words to the songs and bopping along,” Bobrowsky said. “I think it was just really cool to witness him see something that he’d wanted for so long and that he was so obsessed with, so that was really special.”

According to Ranajit, the name Karan means “listener,” and he lived true to his name. In addition to TLC, Karan consumed podcasts like no one else ever could; he always had his headphones on, listening to podcasts while doing his homework, editing stories in the newsroom and even doing chores around the apartment. 

It was not long into his news editor semester in Spring 2018 when Karan asked Peplow if he could create, produce and host a podcast for Daily Trojan. Despite having little to no knowledge about podcast production in his freshman year, Karan read and worked to learn more about the art of making podcasts, eventually creating the paper’s three podcasts. 

In the shows, Karan had a natural ability of bringing out the personalities of his fellow editors who hosted the “Rhythm & News” and “Talkin’ Troy” podcasts, said Natalie Bettendorf, a senior majoring in journalism who helped him launch the department in Fall 2018 as his assistant. 

“We see it all the time in the newsroom, like we would see it in production of how wonderful all these people are,” Bettendorf said. “But you can’t really relay that to the outside world. It was our own special thing, but Karan and I really worked together because we wanted to show the little bits of the newsroom in these podcasts of why it’s such a wonderful place to be in, like why it felt like our family and our home.”

In Summer 2018, Karan interned at Pineapple Street Media in New York, deepening his interest in podcast production, and from Fall 2018 to Summer 2019, Karan interned at Neon Hum Media in Los Angeles.

After a few months, Karan began working as a production assistant at Neon Hum, working on podcasts that ranged from a deep dive into “The Devil Wears Prada” to a show on the founders behind salon chain DryBar. Karan’s boss Vikram Patel said of all of the people at Neon Hum, Karan loved podcasts the most. 

“Karan was just so into the media,” said Patel, Neon Hum’s executive producer. “He just got it. He just understood why he liked it. He loved it, he loved the intimacy of it and he loved the variety of it.”

Karan became such a staple in the Neon Hum family that Patel would often joke that Karan was the chief executive intern by the time other interns were hired. According to Patel, Karan came into his internship knowing that he wanted to pursue a career in podcasting. As the company quickly grew in its first year in 2018, Karan worked on nearly every show that was released by the company.

“He was clearly on his way somewhere,” Patel said. “There’s people you come across in your life who you’re just like, I can’t lose touch with this person because I just want to be around, I just want to witness … [and] watch them continue on in that way, and he’s just so talented and such a good presence.” 

A friend and advocate

At the Daily Trojan, Karan made everyone feel at home. According to Rowan Born, who served on the paper’s editorial board from Spring 2018 to Fall 2019, Karan tied everyone together in a way no other individual did.

“He obviously had people who were closer with him or not closer with, but that didn’t matter,” said Born, a senior majoring in journalism and law, history and culture. “Just as long as you were in that space, and as long as you identified within the Daily Trojan, he was so welcoming of you and so embracive of you and wanted you to feel at home.”

Karan served as the glue to the newsroom. Born said despite Karan’s prowess in reporting and writing at the Daily Trojan, he never made his successes just about him. He found a way to share them with everyone. 

“Even when the spotlight was on him, he found a way to include other people,” Born said. “And he extended his personality outward in a positive way that affected other people and drew them and drew everyone together.”

Friendship in the newsroom extended beyond the walls of STU 421. Alumna Kylie Cheung, who served as Karan’s associate managing editor in Spring 2018, said Karan would always check in on her and find any way to make her day less stressful, such as by helping her with her class assignments. 

“For him, there’s real happiness in just helping someone, whether it’s managing their stress or brightening an already good day,” Cheung said. “For some people, the different things make all of us happy, but for him, there was such real happiness in helping someone.”

Cheung said Karan brought a significant level of thoughtfulness to his work and conversations, always thinking of how he could help others and how he could dig deeper into societal issues. 

At the Daily Trojan — and at newsrooms across the country — one issue that remained unchecked for years was mental health. Editors were facing burnout following long, grueling hours of daily production, reporting on issues such as sexual assault, and this took a great toll on the overall well-being of the newsroom. Karan looked further: How could he cultivate a positive, wellness-oriented newsroom at the Daily Trojan?

With the help of Bettendorf, Karan established a wellness initiative, spending Summer 2019 talking to mental health professionals and thinking of mindful practices to implement in the newsroom. 

“He completely opened my eyes to this issue of addressing wellness in newsrooms and journalists like how it was not something that I put together at all,” Bettendorf said. “And in student newsrooms, like very specifically, just in the broader context of how little it’s addressed just in professional newsrooms as well.”

The wellness initiative at Daily Trojan is still well underway. As deputy wellness director in Fall 2020, Karan guided the staff through meditation sessions and shared several mental health resources for them to turn to, especially given the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on mental health.

“Mark their place in history”

Karan had a fascination with obituaries. Karan, who wrote many obituaries for the Daily Trojan and San Mateo Daily Journal when he was a high schooler, found himself forming a relationship of his own with obituaries as a whole, providing him with a new insight into the world of journalism. 

“I quickly came to realize that obituaries aren’t about death at all,” Karan wrote in a story for the Daily Journal June 2017. “They’re exactly the opposite. They’re celebrations of life, documents that honor a person’s life and mark their place in history.”

Karan left a profound legacy on his family and friends. In remembering him, some said they decided to prioritize their own wellness to eventually advocate for the need for more conversations surrounding mental health. Some said they are looking to pursue their passions unapologetically, just as Karan did.

And some are reaching out to their close friends, both in the Daily Trojan and beyond. 

“Fifteen, 20 years down in our lives, I think Karan will always be a very important part of our memories, not only at the Daily Trojan but also in helping everyone around him understand what’s most important in life,” Pham said. “I think Karan really helped us understand the value of friendship and being there for each other.”

Smita has plans to establish a mental health foundation in Karan’s legacy named the “On My Mind” Foundation, a nod to Karan’s column. With the encouragement of Karan’s uncle Satschin Bansal, his grandfather’s cousin Mukul Mittal, his cousin Swasti Mittal and his brother Yash as well as the help of Karan’s close friends, she plans to first focus on the mental health of college students and then eventually expand to that of high school students.

“It was very important for Karan to spread the word, the awareness about mental health, and I want to make sure that I can help each and every student, and also every parent who’s going through this,” Smita said. “I have Karan with me all the time in my heart, in my soul. He’s always with me.”

In addition to his parents and brother, Karan is survived by his younger sister Simran.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Karan Nevatia attended the Columbia Scholastic Press Association journalism workshop in Summer 2016. He attended the California Scholastic Press Association workshop. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.

Editor’s Note: Kate Sequeira and Eileen Toh served alongside Karan Nevatia as news editors in Spring 2018 and managing editors in Spring and Fall 2019. 

Read eulogies given by former Daily Trojan editors at Karan Nevatia’s memorial service Sept. 17 here.