Dr. Ofelia “Ofel” Villa Dirige



The early years of our lives are the foundation of what we are today. The decisions we made then are so important for they determines where we are going and what we are to be. I am so happy with the decisions I made when I was at UP Diliman from 1956 to 1960 for it provided direction to my future life. There were two events that happened to me that guided the pathway on where I should tread. One was related to my career and the second was on the values and attitudes I have acquired that guided me today in terms of myself and relationship with others.

UP Student Days

One of the most memorable days of my life was the years I spent at the UP Diliman campus. I was an honor student in high school from Philippine Women’s University so I did not have to take the entrance exams to get in. I did not have a major when I started so I was in the Liberal Arts Department for a year before I declared my major.

I had the intense desire to help others so I decided to be in the helping professions. My desire was to be a medical doctor but I knew it was expensive and therefore impossible for my parents to support me as I was the second child from a large family of seven. I thought about being a nurse as the next option but the College of Nursing’s minimum height requirement of being 5 feet tall disqualified me from entering the college. I missed it by one inch as I was only 4’11”. This was a big blow for me but didn’t deter my ambition to be something else.

My next alternative was to be a nutritionist/dietitian as I heard it was a wide open field and there was a big chance of coming to the United States for further training. I pursued the field of nutrition and dietetics for four years under the College of Education that subsequently became the College of Home Economics. My studies were quiet and uneventful. I studied hard to obtain college and university scholarships so my parents would not have to pay for my tuition.

Professional Life

After graduation, I interned at the Philippine General Hospital for six months so I can qualify to take the first board examination for dietitians. I came out with flying colors as I topped these board exams for dietitians!

My path to success was relatively easy after this. I worked at Far Eastern University Hospital as a clinical dietitian to get some experience. I also took some graduate courses at UP in preparation for studies abroad. I was accepted at the University of Hawaii (UH) to pursue a M.S. degree in Nutrition under an East-West grant. I left the Philippines for the US in 1966 and studied at the UH and, later, at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). This was the start of my lifetime career ladder as my fascination with public health led me to UCLA where I obtained a doctorate’s degree in public health in 1972.

I supported myself through teaching and research assistantships. I then worked as a nutrition supervisor for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and then spent more than 20 years in academia, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in nutrition, public health and Asian Studies in various US universities.

I was a research associate at the UH and UCLA, nutrition supervisor at Hubert Humphrey and Edward Roybal Comprehensive Health Centers in Los Angeles, and faculty at Pepperdine University, California State University in Long Beach and Los Angeles, UH and San Diego State University (SDSU). In 2004, I assisted in organizing a travel study program between SDSU Dept. of Asian Studies and UP Diliman that did not materialize due to terrorist threats.

Career Highlight

The highlight of my career was co-founding with Dr. Riz A. Oades, a fellow professor at SDSU, the Kalusugan Community Services (KCS) in 1994 and establishing the Filipino American Wellness Center (FWC) in 2002. The mission of the Center is to improve the health and wellbeing of Filipino Americans through positive changes in life style through community service, research, training and advocacy. From a coalition with a start-up budget of $50,000 it has grown to a multifaceted agency in 2008 with a total income of $3 million since its inception. It was during the last 10 years that KCS was born and I spent part of my career helping build the organization into what it is today.

The Center’s activities include dissemination of information, screening and referrals, health education and parent/youth workshops, nutrition and physical activities, and intergenerational cultural and social events. Its programs have been effective in improving the health and well-being of FilAms, i.e., increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables and increasing physical activity. The future goal of the organization is to be a financially stable and professionally managed institution so that it can be self-sustaining and continue to carry its mission in the next generations to come.

Values and Attitudes

It was also at UP that I started attending Bible studies sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) that was held “under the trees” in front of the Liberal Arts building. Seeing a group of students meeting under the trees fascinated me so when a friend invited me to attend I went to check it out. It was here that I heard about the “good news”, about being “born again” and “being saved”. I met students who already believed in the message and dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel. I also responded positively and this started my life on a path that gave a meaningful goal and purpose in life.

This experience guided me all through life such that I started reading the Bible, going to a church to hear inspirational messages, and meeting many Christian acquaintances that became lifetime friends. Before going to the US, I took a detour in my career and spent two years in Oriental Mindoro and Silang, Cavite as a missionary. These were one of the happiest days of my life! The people I ministered to were so nice and very receptive to the gospel message. I wish I could forever be a missionary. However, I missed the intellectual stimulation that I had at the university and was concerned about raising my own financial support, so I decided to go back and pursue my profession.

I am happy in the career where I am – a nutritionist, as I found a niche where my talents can be used and where I have influenced many people to become healthy. I have two sisters who are nurses and a brother in law who is a physician. I guess you can say that this has sublimated my desire to be a physician or nurse. A verse in the Bible states, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Sometimes we get frustrated in not getting what we want, but in the end we only have to be thankful that it was the best thing that happened to us.

Oftentimes, also, we take detours along the way, but eventually, God will get us back to where we should be. Thus, I am looking forward to a new vision of the future that will blend my career and noble calling for my life.

Influence of UP Training

I am thankful to UP for the training that I received during my undergraduate days. Without it I would not have started my career on a solid footing. I am also proud to win the University of the Philippines Alumni Association of America’s (UPAAA) Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award in 2005 given in San Diego, California.

Mostly, I am thankful that it was at UP that I experienced the most significant event in my life that changed me drastically and set the direction on where I should go and what I should be. I have trusted the Lord to guide me and I am still trusting that He will continue to do so in the many more years to come so I can be the person I was meant to be and continue to be of service to others.