This is the 34th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
“I think what initially drew me to journalism is that you can have a real-world impact, and it’s a public service in many ways. You provide this accountability to your community that is so important,” said Elena Kadvany, a writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories, and public-service journalism.
Kadvany has covered local restaurants, education, mental health, and sexual violence for Bay Area newspapers including The Palo Alto Weekly, The Almanac, and The Six Fifty. She is currently a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Kadvany’s journalism career began at M-A’s previous student newspaper, The Bear Naked News. She remembered, “I loved being on the paper at M-A. Long before I knew that I was seriously interested in a career in journalism, I really enjoyed just doing interviews and being part of that group on campus.”
“Journalism and English were my favorite classes in high school because I love reading and writing,” Kadvany continued. “I remember my English teacher Lisa Otsuka very fondly. She really supported my interest in writing and was very encouraging and caring as a human being.”
“I also had a great Precalculus teacher: Kristen Trent (Bryan),” she added. “I was really bad at math and science in school, but that was the last math class where I enjoyed math and actually grasped what was going on. The class was tough, but Ms. Trent was really nice, and if I had a hard time, she was very patient about explaining things.”
Kadvany played varsity water polo and swam for M-A all four years of high school, which she remembers was “a very tight knit community.”
“We had water polo practice before and after school, so that took up a huge amount of time and I took it very seriously,” she said. “The team was a really wonderful group of people to feel rooted in, and our coach, Chris Rubin, was a great leader. We spent so much time together, practicing and playing games on weekends, and I miss that. Honestly, that’s something you don’t really get in the same way when you leave high school or college—a team environment, and getting to work out outside multiple hours a day.”
After M-A, Kadvany moved to New York City to attend New York University (NYU). “I took an intro to journalism class on a whim during my freshman year of college, and totally fell in love with it,” she said.
“On the first day of that class, the teacher was like, ‘I know journalism sounds sort of fun and romantic, but it’s actually very serious and hard, and it’s not for everyone,’” she explained. “He basically set this expectation of, ‘I’m taking this really seriously, and if you’re not, I don’t want you to be here.’ The class was super engaging and interesting. I really wanted to do well and prove myself, and the class sparked this fire in me of wanting to pursue journalism as my career.”
However, Kadvany said, “Academically, NYU was great, but socially, I wasn’t super happy there. For a while, I felt like I had to stick it out regardless of whether I was happy or not, but I eventually realized that transferring was an option.”
After her sophomore year, Kadvany transferred from NYU to the University of Southern California (USC). “I was so enamored with and committed to journalism by that point that I chose USC basically just because they have a great undergraduate journalism program,” she said.
Kadvany wrote for the student newspapers at both NYU and USC, and took on many different journalism internships throughout college including at KQED and The Almanac. One summer, she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The only way I could get my foot in the door at The Chronicle was to be a Home and Garden intern, so that’s where I started,” she remembered. “The Home and Garden desks were near the Food team, so I ended up pitching and writing food stories as well. It was a great experience.”
After graduating from USC in 2012, Kadvany moved back to the Bay Area and began covering education and food for The Palo Alto Weekly. “Especially in local journalism, there are so many important issues that people care about but won’t know about unless newspapers cover them,” she said. “There were so many nights I sat at school board meetings, sometimes past midnight, but if I wasn’t there, the public would have had no idea what the school board was doing.”
Two prominent stories Kadvany covered for The Palo Alto Weekly were the Brock Turner Stanford sexual assault trial and the Gunn and Palo Alto High School student suicide clusters. “Both of those stories were challenging to write and very personally important to me,” she said.
“I went to every day of Brock Turner’s trial, and interviewed a juror,” she explained. “It was very all-consuming, and such a huge story at the time. After that, I started to cover sexual assault more broadly, and wrote other stories about sexual assault at Stanford.”
“When I covered the suicides at Gunn, I was constantly talking to kids and community members about really heavy topics, and that was challenging as well,” she continued. “I became very interested in youth mental health, and it’s a topic I still really care about.”
She added, “The hard-hitting side of journalism can be quite emotionally draining at times. As a journalist, you need to learn how to take care of yourself first, which I didn’t always do when I was younger—I’ve had to figure it out along the way.”
Kadvany also wrote a food blog, Peninsula Foodist, for The Palo Alto Weekly. “My food stories are really fun and rewarding in a very different way, and they gave me sort of a break from the hard stuff,” she explained.
“Being a journalist is a very dynamic job,” Kadvany reflected. “Often, you’re writing about something, which turns into a story about something else, which gives you an idea for something else. It’s not like you’re sitting at a computer just doing one thing all day.”
Kadvany’s advice to current M-A students: When I look back at my time in high school, I think there wasn’t a lot of conversation or awareness around mental health. There was so much focus on academics and that being the most important thing, and I know that’s still an issue. I don’t think it was M-A’s fault, it was just high school and the area and world we grew up in, but it definitely took a toll on me and I ended up having to grapple with that later in life. I wish that mental health had been talked about more at the time, and I encourage kids today to talk about what’s going on with you emotionally, and to go talk to a therapist or counselor if you need to. There’s no need to be overly worried or scared or fearful about grades—one grade is not going to be the end of your life, or even really matter very much later on in life.
Kadvany’s favorite book is The Night of the Gun by David Carr, an investigative journalist for the New York Times. She explained, “Carr was an incredibly talented former journalist who had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and decided to investigate his own life and addiction. He interviewed friends, family, and coworkers, and pulled court documents from his arrests and wrote his memoir based on all of these things. He was just an incredible writer and it’s such a fascinating way to think about your own life.”
In her free time, Kadvany enjoys visiting local restaurants, hiking, running, swimming, and reading. Two of her favorite restaurants are Pearl in San Francisco and Chef Kwan’s in Menlo Park. “Pearl has amazing fresh pasta. You can sit at the bar and get a drink and a bowl of pasta and the service is so good. It’s just a very cozy, comfortable place,” she said. “Whenever I come home, I always want to get takeout from Su Hong [Chef Kwan’s]—it has a different name now, but we still call it Su Hong—because the food is so good and it’s very nostalgic.”
“It’s been fun for me to keep in touch with my classmates from M-A,” Kadvany added. “All of my best friends—they were all my bridesmaids in my wedding last year—are my best friends from high school. We were all super close at M-A and still are today.”
Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. As Maria Popova once wrote, “There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.” Every M-A alum—and every person—is “accomplished” in their own way, and everyone has a story to tell.