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Drs. Gurpreet (Pete) Leekha ’89 and Zareen Charania ’96 both attended St. Michaels University School but never met while they were there. At their wedding in 2010, Zareen made fun of their age difference by bringing a copy of the 1989 SMUS yearbook and making jokes like, “Imagine if Gurpreet and I had been dating then – what does a 10-year-old wear to the prom?”
They are a lighthearted couple who enjoy teasing each other but they are both very serious about their careers in optometry, which they see as a calling, and about recognizing SMUS for giving them the knowledge, skills and discipline to pursue that calling. The couple have been regular donors to scholarships and financial aid as part of the annual Dream Big fund for a number of years.
In fact, Gurpreet experienced the benefit of scholarship and financial aid firsthand. “I came to SMUS as a BCTV scholar,” he says, recalling that he first saw a commercial for the school watching late-night TV during a teachers’ strike in his hometown of Coquitlam. “That’s what I want to do,” he told himself, and by September he was in Victoria starting his Grade 11 year as a boarder.
He found the social adjustment to a new school and to boarding life tough but surmountable. The academic adjustment was tougher. “I had been acing everything in public school,” he says, “but the academics at SMUS were a huge challenge.” He feels fortunate to have found at SMUS champions who were eager to invest in him. “I have fond memories of Dr. Harvey, my Grade 12 calculus teacher. He could tell the subject frustrated me but that I really wanted to learn it, so he confided that he had failed calculus in high school. His patience and gentle approach worked, because it became one of my best subjects.”
He also credits the support of his classmates and friends, particularly fellow BCTV scholar Ian Farish ’89. “To this day,” Gurpreet says, “Ian is one of my biggest cheerleaders in whatever endeavour I choose.” Zareen agrees emphatically, saying of her own SMUS support team: “I had a great network of friends that I was lucky enough to see every day at school – we all wanted the best for each other.”
Zareen’s parents enrolled her at SMUS in Grade 3 after the first two years of her schooling failed to meet their expectations. “At the time,” Zareen says, “my parents couldn’t realize the profound effect the next 10 years of life at SMUS would have on me. I absolutely loved it.” Her teachers were instrumental in developing her work ethic, her confidence and sense of curiosity in the classroom. “Everything from Mrs. Pollard as my Grade 3 homeroom teacher and her times tables dance, to Mr. Gardiner coaching us to a badminton provincials win in Grade 12 and being a wonderful (and terrifying!) mentor and friend,” it all had a lasting impact on her life.
After graduating from SMUS as head girl, Zareen completed a biology degree at the University of Victoria and went on to the optometry program at the University of Waterloo. As a newly minted doctor of optometry, she moved to Campbell River and practiced there for three years before making her way back to Victoria.
As straightforward as Zareen’s path was from SMUS to a thriving career, Gurpreet’s was anything but. Going to Queen’s University after graduation, Gurpreet’s eclectic interests led him to do two undergraduate degrees – one in chemistry and the other in film studies. He then spent a year travelling the world, which included a stint working on a TV series in Hong Kong. Over the course of his travels, he met a number of people who approached their work as a calling and those connections led him to think more deeply about his own calling in life.
That contemplation led him back to a previous interest in optometry and he enrolled in the optometry program at SUNY in New York City, completing his degree in 2001. He stayed in the US for a few years, practicing in New York as well as in Miami, but like Zareen, he eventually found his way home to Coquitlam where he intended to settle. Little did he know that fate had other plans.
“There was a pharmaceutical rep I worked with who kept bugging me about this optometrist in Victoria she wanted to set me up with,” Gurpreet remembers. The rep soon found her opportunity at a conference. “I spotted the rep across the room and noticed the woman she was talking to,” says Gurpreet. “When they parted, I went to greet the rep and she was all excited, saying ‘that was her!’” He was most definitely interested and asked the rep to call the woman back to introduce him. Although initially wary, Zareen agreed to go to a conference party with Gurpreet where they danced until the early hours. They discovered their SMUS connection when Gurpreet insisted he knew someone with the same last name as Zareen. It turned out that his younger brother Jasie and her older brother Jahangir graduated from SMUS together in 1993 – both Gurpreet and Zareen had attended the ceremony with their families.
Today, Gurpreet and Zareen are happily settled in Victoria with twin four-year-olds – a daughter and a son – and a growing practice as partners in Royal Oak Optometry. Having maintained the bonds they established with friends at SMUS, their social and moral support team still includes many alumni. That continued connection has also kept them close to the school, and when they felt financially stable enough to start giving back, SMUS was an obvious choice for their charitable contributions.
“My parents worked extremely hard to be able to send us to SMUS and they made a lot of sacrifices,” says Zareen. “Unfortunately for some people, the financial barrier puts SMUS just out of reach. A donation means someone is out there who is willing to support you in reaching your fullest potential. If we can lessen the financial burden on families who need it, we are very grateful that we’re able to do it. We’ve been given a great life and it’s a privilege to be able to pay that forward.”
Be part of the team that’s supporting the dreams of our students. Make a contribution to the Dream Big fund at www.smus.ca/dreambig.
This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of School Ties.