An ambitious, successful, talented Filipina psychologist, Dr. Virginia Dagdag Cantorna is within our midst. She is the daughter of 1946 Sakada Ramon Calibuso Dagdag and his wife Valeriana Donia Dagdag, who emigrated from Ilocos Sur, Philippines. Born on New Year’s Eve in 1955, she is the eldest of three daughters. Her siblings are Evelyn “Evie” Chargualaf and Sandra “Sandy” Hew. The Dagdags resided in the plantation village of Keahua which is no longer in existence. Virgie, as she is fondly called, shared her memories of a kerosene stove used by her family to cook their meals, butchering pigs for lechon, neighboring cattle, and an outdoor kasilya or latrine.
In 1960, the Dagdag family moved to Kahului’s “Dream City.” Virgie, as a 2nd grader attended the old Lihikai School (located across the Maui Beach Hotel). That’s when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Virgie recalls. When she was an eighth grader, the new Lihikai School on Papa Avenue opened. Virgie entered a contest to write the school’s alma mater for a $5 prize and won. The song Virgie composed continues to be Lihikai’s alma mater.
Virgie is a very talented individual especially in the area of music. She was a member of Sing-Out Maui and performed weekly aboard cruiseships and at hotels. She participated in the drama club in which she held a big role as Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music. She studied voice and performed as a soloist in the Maui Symphony Orchestra’s Opera Gala.
According to Virgie, her parents sacrificed a lot to provide the best education for her and her sisters and her parents frequently reminded them: “We sweat so you don’t have to work in the sugarcane fields or the pineapple cannery.” Virgie attended St. Anthony High School, excelled in the social and biological sciences, and fell in love with psychology. She graduated at the top of her class.
Virgie received a scholarship to the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. It was a culture shock to Virgie for she knew no one there. The late Congresswoman Patsy Mink provided to be a big help; Mink dispatched her secretary to help Virgie get settled-in.
In 1970, Virgie graduated Magna Cum Laude, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing. She stood out at her college graduation as the “Hawaiian with all the leis.” After graduation, Virgie remained in Washington, D.C. and worked for Children’s Hospital. She was assigned to some very unique cases including conjoined twins, a baby with ambiguous genitals (both male and female), and infants who were raped. Virgie was promoted to the position of Nurse Recruitment Coordinator, the youngest person in nursing administration, and travelled nationwide in search of staff nurses.
In 1982, Maui boy Alfred Cantorna asked her, “Will you Maui me?” They had a small wedding in Maryland and a year later had a second wedding ceremony with four hundred guests. They came back to Hawai‘i. While on Maui, Virgie accepted a teaching position at St. Anthony High School as there were no openings for a nursing position. Virgie was assigned to teach growth and Development and Morality because of her Catholic education and nursing background.
In 1986, Virgie was hired as a nursing instructor at Maui Memorial Hospital. She earned her Master’s degree in Nursing in 1995 and was promoted to Director of Nursing, overseeing a $13 million budget. It was a period of growth for the hospital according to Virgie. They opened the adolescent psychiatric unit, renovated the obstetrics unit, added the cancer center, and expanded the emergency department.
Virgie shared her most personal predicament: “Clinical testing revealed I couldn’t have children. After our ninth year of marriage, I became pregnant with our surprise, miracle child. Our daughter, Emily, is a true blessing in our lives. She is following in my footsteps, pursuing a career in nursing.”
After a few years, Kula Hospital recruited Virgie to direct its Nursing Department. But in 2000 she felt an urge to pursue her dream of becoming a psychologist. Although her mom did not approve at first, Virgie’s Mom conceded when she realized Virgie would be addressed as “Doctor.” Alfred supported her by working a second job that offered free flight benefits. Virgie recalled her first day of graduate school in Honolulu was followed by the September 11 attacks. She completed her internship at Boston University Medical Center, School of Medicine during the year of Hurricane Katrina. Their cohort assisted in giving crisis emotional care to the victims. Virgie is very grateful her mother Valeriana lived long enough to attend her graduation where she was the valedictorian: “Mom introduced me as ‘my daughter, Doctor Virgie Cantorna.’”
Virgie worked as a psychologist for the Department of Education for six years. She also taught health care for the University of Phoenix and psychology for Argosy University’s Masters program. Today, she has a thriving private practice specializing in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Virgie also enjoys working with coup-les on relationship problems. Because Virgie has a basic command of Ilokano, many Filipino clients are referred to her.
Dr. Virgie Cantorna is involved in many community activities such as the renovation of Kepaniwai Park, musical theater and choral work, non-profit organizations, and co-founded the Maui Filipino Working Group which teaches cultural competency and advocates for progressive social change. Virgie also created the Safe Keiki Project, a foundation for the prevention of child sexual assault. She received several awards such as Maui Peace Hero, Gintong Pamana Leadership Award, and Maui News’ People Who Made a Difference. “I am grateful to my parents for all their sacrifices and for teaching me the value of education, family, and hard work. I try to honor their memory through my contribution to our community,” says Virgie.
“My hope for the Filipino community includes teaching children about their Filipino roots, customs and traditions; decreasing domestic violence, abuse, and drug addiction; encouraging our talented youngsters to grow through the performing arts; and supporting and nurturing more Filipinos in leadership positions,” says Dr. Virgie Cantorna.