The honor of who travels the farthest to attend Alumnae Weekend each year became a bit of a rout for Mary Costello and her sister Phyllis Bresnik, who depart California for Maple Mount each year.
But in 2022, no one was going to challenge Rhonda Snawder Higgs for the title. The 1982 graduate traveled 15 hours from her home in Kodiak, Alaska so she could join her Mount Saint Joseph Academy classmates for their 40th reunion. Visiting with the Sisters who had such an impact on her life was another reason for her journey.
“The Sisters were such a part of fine tuning, molding and shaping the person I am today,” Rhonda said. “I had so many moms. It’s like a part of each of them is in me.”
During her sophomore year, Rhonda began her own ministry of visiting the older Sisters in the infirmary every night after dinner. “They loved the girls. I got really attached,” she said.
The Academy closed the year after Rhonda graduated, which was difficult for her and her classmates.
“I used to dream about the Mount reopening,” she said. “I still consider the girls like my sisters.”
Walking around the campus after Alumnae Weekend concluded this year left Rhonda a bit emotional. The Academy building is no longer structurally sound, and will likely be deconstructed before the alums gather again in August 2023.
“I came here when I was 13 years old,” she said that day.
She grew up in Louisville, where she attended Our Lady of Consolation elementary school. Her fellow Girl Scout Dee Dee Slaughter attended Mount Saint Joseph Academy, and regaled Rhonda and her friends with stories of her days in boarding school.
“It sounded like the TV show ‘The Facts of Life,’” Rhonda said on Aug. 31. “I thought it sounded fun, but also would be a place of peace and serenity.” Rhonda was also considering whether religious life was calling her, so she enrolled at the Academy.
While the call to religious life waned, her love of the Ursuline Sisters grew. The living Sisters who taught her include Sister Catherine Marie Lauterwasser, Sister Mary Henning, Sister Jacinta Powers and former sister Mary Danhauer.
“Mary and Sister Jacinta inspired me to go into science,” Rhonda said. “My junior year, my job was to prepare the chemistry lab for Mary Danhauer’s classes. I fell in love with science. They were great teachers.”
After graduating in 1982, she spent a year at Spalding College in Louisville to be near her family again. But she became engaged to a young man and moved to his native McLean County, completing her degree in medical technology from Owensboro’s Brescia College in 1986.
She later moved to Madisonville, Ky., raised her three children and was involved in various roles as a medical technologist, doing diagnostic testing in hospitals or doctor’s office labs. After she and her husband parted, she began serving as a traveling medical technologist. Her second assignment was to Kodiak in 2014. It was love at first sight.
“I loved the peace and serenity, the beauty of it,” Rhonda said. “I love nature and hiking. It’s just gorgeous.”
After her initial assignment was completed and her son graduated from high school in Madisonville, she returned to Kodiak and took a position at the hospital there. After five years, she became the technical consultant for the Kodiak Area Nature Association, where she continues to serve. The agency offers health care and social services to people in Kodiak and six other villages that are only accessible by floatplane.
Kodiak is on an island south of Homer, where in the winter there is only six hours of sunlight a day. In the summer, there can be 16 hours of sunlight.
“At 11 p.m., you can still be out working in your yard,” she said.
King crab first brought Kodiak fame in the 1970s, although now the species is extinct on the island, Rhonda said. The city is home to the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in the country and the fifth largest commercial fishing industry.
She met her new husband, Robert Higgs, while working at the hospital in Kodiak, where he serves as a biomedical engineer. Her mother is still living in Louisville. Her son lives in Madisonville and her daughter in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her other daughter is deceased.
Traveling back to Kentucky takes three flights and 15 hours – if one is lucky. At times it can require five flights, she said, and the travel is expensive. She tries to come to Kentucky twice a year, and her father’s death earlier in 2022 brought her home already this spring. But gathering with her classmates for their 40th reunion was worth the trip, she said.
“The girls are still a close-knit group,” she said. “I could call any one of them and they would do anything to help me.”