Editor's Note: This story contains information about a student death that readers may find triggering. Reader discretion is advised.
Whether it was yelling out encouragement at dance practice to hype up his team, mentoring kids at Camp Kesem or designing new technology at the Applied Machine Learning Lab, sophomore Raj Mehta brought passion and positivity to everything he did.
“Everyone deserves to have a light as bright as Raj in their lives,” said his sister Pooja Mehta, Trinity ’17.
Mehta, who died by suicide March 27, lived in Morrisville, N.C. He is survived by parents Samir and Rashmi Mehta, sister Pooja and many friends at Duke who admired him for his empathy and kindness.
“He recognized that every person is compassionate and extraordinary in their own way,” sophomore Arjun Juneja said.
Juneja attended the same high school as Mehta, and the two have been close friends for six years, especially inseparable while attending the same university. They saw each other nearly every day and fell into an easy routine.
“We would be in Perkins, go change for dance, run to dance practice at the [Rubenstein Arts Center], then go to Pitchforks,” Juneja recalled. “Then at Pitchforks he would pull his mac and cheese bites in half because they were too warm.”
It is little things like this, Juneja said, that he will remember most. Big or small, Mehta brought a smile to those around him, always able to show exceptional compassion.
“He was always a good friend, but with distance, if need be. A friend who knew how to be there at the right time,” Juneja said.
Another friend of Mehta’s, sophomore Saagar Jain, shared a similar sentiment.
“He could somehow always read people. He knew when something was wrong and knew the right thing to say at the right time,” Jain said. “You knew Raj cared about you even if he didn’t tell you directly.”
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After meeting at the beginning of their first year at Duke, Jain immediately connected with Raj.
“He could connect with people so quickly and so seamlessly,” Jain remembered.
This ability also extended past Duke’s borders. During the past winter break, Mehta was going on a cruise that left from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jain’s hometown. Mehta came in a day early so that he could visit the night before Jain’s birthday.
“I introduced him to my old high school friends and within a few minutes it seemed like he had known them forever,” Jain said. “He had such a bright smile. Everyone just wanted to be friends with him as soon as they met him.”
The three sophomores, “a little squad” in Juneja’s words, were all on the Duke Dhamaka dance team and volunteered at Camp Kesem together.
Community and joy were important to him, Pooja Mehta remembered.
“He had so much love in his life, and I think that’s why he had so much love to give,” she said. “Everybody knows how positive he was and how bright of a light he had.”
Mehta was born at Duke Hospital, the youngest by five years of a tight-knit group of family friends. Four families, totaling 15 people, were there.
When Pooja Mehta was accepted to Duke, he was more excited than she was.
“He said ‘Didi, I’m gonna be next, I’m gonna be next.’ And I think the day he got into Duke was the best day of his life,” she said. “He was so excited and so ready to be a Blue Devil.”
Nothing made him happier than when the siblings would go to Duke men’s basketball games together. Mehta would sneak in with a borrowed Duke ID before he was a Duke student.
“Grayson Allen touched his hand once and he was so excited. ‘I’m never washing this hand!’” Pooja Mehta recalled him saying, laughing fondly at the memory. “He loved Duke, and he loved Duke basketball.”
Mehta was working toward degrees in computer science and electrical and computer engineering from the Pratt School of Engineering. Juneja described him as “tech-driven” and “trying to make a difference.”
“I remember the way his eyes lit up when he talked about his machine learning idea,” Jain said, “He would do anything and everything to succeed when he was doing something he really loved and cared about.”
Mehta was also passionate about helping others. He was a student leader at Camp Kesem, a summer camp for children whose parents have cancer. He worked with the six- to nine-year-olds, and Jain said that he completed their camp experience.
At the talent show put on by the kids at camp, Raj would rush the stage after each act, waving a paper and pen to ask the children for their autographs.
“A lot of the counselors get tired but Raj somehow always seemed so full of energy,” Jain said. “The kids loved him.”
To keep Raj’s spirit alive on campus, his friends and family want people to show compassion, love and a bright smile.
“He might not be here with us physically anymore,” Jain said, “but his spirit is something we should all try to emulate.”
Correction: This article was updated at 11:30 a.m. to reflect that Pooja Mehta stated that Raj Mehta told her, "Didi," not "Bibi," "I'm gonna be next, I'm gonna be next." The Chronicle regrets the error.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.