BY GAYLE SIMONE
valley dispatch staff
DRACUT — She was afraid to leave her house, but Brenda Caunter did it for the first time in years to support her daughter Nichole.
Nichole, 20, had taken the assessment test at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) and had real low test results.
“She has testing anxiety,” the 46-year-old said about her daughter. “She took it again and did much better so she had to change her classes.”
Knowing Nichole would be nervous about changing her schedule, Brenda decided to go to campus with her.
“I’m really agoraphobic,” Brenda said. “I hadn’t left my house in years.”
Brenda not only suffers from agoraphobia but also complex post traumatic stress disorder and chronic panic and anxiety.
Brenda and Nichole arrived on campus, but Nichole’s adviser thought it would be best Brenda waited outside while the changes were made in Nichole’s schedule — that was when Brenda’s life changed.
Brenda explained three people had asked her if she needed help and her response was the same, “no.”
It wasn’t until Brenda saw the flyer for a fair — Women Returning to School, that she changed her mind.
When the fourth person asked Brenda if she needed help her response was yes.
When Nichole emerged from her meeting with her advisor, Brenda told her daughter they had to return to campus to attend the fair.
“As the night approached, I didn’t want to come,” Brenda said of the fair. “I go everywhere early if there’s going to be a crowd. As the room was filling up I wanted to leave.”
But Brenda stood strong and decided to stay and it proved to be the right decision.
“My dream, my whole life was to go to college,” Brenda said. “In high school I was an F student, not because I didn’t do the work, but because of other things that happened in my life. To me (going to college) was a big thing.”
Brenda learned the campus has several learning accommodations, such as having a note taker write all of her class notes for her as well as having a tape recorder in class.
Brenda discussed all her options with her therapist and they decided she would take just two classes last fall.
Brenda opted to take piano and graphic design in her first semester.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a singer,” Brenda explained. “As I got older that dream changed to just do my songs but not be a star.”
Brenda chose the right courses because she earned an A in both.
Her second semester, Brenda decided to be braver in her course selection as she enrolled in Intro to Psychology and English Composition I.
“Half way through the semester, I had a bad thing with depression,” Brenda said. “In January I hosted a table at the women’s fair and the next day I entered the hospital.”
Brenda returned to school and maintained her 4.0 GPA — with the help of her daughter.
“My daughter has been really good through all of this,” Brenda said. “She always tells me how proud she is of me.”
Nichole is not only proud of her mother, but knows she needs the support.
“I think it helps her a lot,” Nichole said. “I think if I didn’t tell her she would have just quit.”
Brenda will attempt three classes this fall — Music Theory I, Music Technical Sound and Art.
Brenda also credits Ginny Anderson and MJ Perna and the entire Women’s Network, for their support.
“The Women’s Network really helped me when I was ready to leave,” Brenda said. “It’s almost like having a bunch of sisters. Ginny and MJ, they are really genuine. They care, it’s not fake. You can tell they really care. They’re sincere and honest. They open their arms and take you in. It’s like having two mothers on campus.”
Brenda recently became part of the work-study program and works in the Women’s Network department.
Brenda and Nichole now carpool to campus from their Dracut home.
“It’s kind of cool,” Nichole said about going to the same college as her mother. “It can be annoying at times because she’s always on me to get my homework done. But it’s like I have a permanent lunch buddy.”
Nichole is glad her mother decided to attend college and will continue to support her every way she can.
“She’s a fighter and a great mom,” Nichole said. “Even though sometimes I don’t tell her I love her, I’d be completely lost without her.”
Brenda and Nichole have both earned a spot in the PACE Program because they are technically both first generations attending college — Nichole received the PACE Scholarship.
Brenda received a $1,000 scholarship from Coca-Cola and also another scholarship from the Women’s Network.
There are a few differences between the mother/daughter team. Brenda is a dual major in General Studies: Multimedia and Liberal Arts: Music. She is hoping to attend UMass Lowell once she receives her Associates Degree from NECC. Nichole on the other hand is studying to become an elementary school teacher and has no idea where she will continue her education after she completes her two years at NECC.