In July 2013, they made it official.
Wendy asked Laura and her husband, Brian, to adopt her — at age 26 — so that when she and her mother graduate from Indiana University Kokomo, they have the same last name.
"I wanted the last name of the people who were there for me and supported me," said Wendy, who will earn her degree in December. "It makes me feel more like part of the family."
For Laura Brown, who graduated in May, the adoption was more about putting on paper what was in their hearts for Wendy.
"When you're there for all the growing up stuff, you are the mother," she said. "This didn't change anything for us. It's a change of her name more than it's a change of situation."
Wendy and her sister, Melissa, were only supposed to stay with the Browns for a short time, while their biological mother served in the military. However, she did not return for the girls after completing her service, so they grew up as members of the family. The Browns adopted two other children, who are now in junior high, but Wendy never felt the need to accept their standing offer to adopt her — at least until 2013, as she neared graduation.
One of Laura Brown's rules was that college was a requirement, not an option. She regretted not going to college herself, discouraged by her guidance counselor, who told her she was "not college material." Her own children would know better, she decided.
"I drilled it into her that you need to go to college," Laura Brown said. "I never told her what to study. I said that I didn't care if she went to Hamburger University, but she had to do something. She had to have a job, a driver's license, and be enrolled in college before she graduated from high school."
Wendy Brown recalls signing up for fall classes at IU Kokomo during spring break her senior year from high school, mostly to get Laura to leave her alone, but now she's glad she did.
Just a year later, her mother decided it was time for her to go to college, and enrolled in a math class.
"I faced my biggest fear, and I walked out with a B," she said. "Once I got past that, I knew this was possible for me. I've had a 3.0 GPA, while working, raising kids, and taking care of my family. It's been so much better than I ever thought it would be. I wish I had done this 20 years earlier."
Laura and Wendy took several classes together, and learned to work off each other's strengths to succeed in those classes. Laura takes detailed notes, while Wendy's gift is being able to recall precisely what was said in class.
"When we're studying at home, if you don't understand something, you can yell across the room for help," Wendy said. "We had some healthy competition with our grades. I probably earned better grades than I would have otherwise, because we had that competition going."
They never told people they were mother and daughter, which led to some funny moments. Both of them laugh remembering a young man flirting with Wendy in a class, only to be embarrassed when he realized her mother was right there. Another time, a professor joked that when the class paired up for projects, there were not to be any mother and daughter pairs.
Both agree they've learned about each other, and strengthened their relationship by going to school together.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.