Jeanne Ferguson carries a snapshot of her family in her wallet. There she is, a year ago, beaming, full-faced, with long, straight blond hair held back neatly by a narrow headband. With her in the photo are her two young daughters and her smiling husband.

That was the Jeanne Ferguson of car pools, family church picnics and morning coffee with neighbors.

"The old Jeanne," she says ruefully.

The new Jeanne is sitting at the kitchen table in her Gaithersburg home, a pack of cigarettes and ashtray in front of her. A thick economics book and study guide are stacked neatly to the side. Her blond hair is newly permed into a mass of long curls, her face is thin.

This Jeanne takes economics, exchanges information about quizzes in late-night phone calls and writes term papers on Saturdays.

She's almost always pressed for time, and tonight she will serve pizza and ice cream bars to her kids for dinner. Then, after the paper plates are put in the trash, the silverware put away, the children in bed, she will try to study.

At age 34, Jeanne Ferguson has immersed herself in something that, by her own description, "probably involves more risk than anything I've ever done."

She is going to college.

Like any college student, she carries with her hopes for good grades, a desire to make friends and the goal of a rewarding and lucrative job at the end.

The difference is that when most of her classmates were in grammar school, Jeanne Ferguson was working in a bank, getting married, having children. What brings her to this point is optimism as much as tragedy.

At the same time that she is a new student, she is also a relatively new widow. She spent last fall and early winter watching her 33-year old husband succumb to rectal cancer. They had been married nine years.

The irony of both those realities is inescapable for her. She declares wearily: "I'm too young to be a widow and too old to be student."

That may be, but now she is both.

She spent two years at a small college in Kentucky 15 years ago. Technically, she's picking up where she left off. But not really. It just doesn't compare. Going to Union College in Barberville, Ky., was nothing like braving the campus sprawl that is the University of Maryland in College Park.

In Kentucky, she concentrated mostly on dating and socializing. She's embarrassed to talk about it now.

At the University of Maryland, she's taking economics and wants to major in business.

What's it like to go back to school when you're 34 and a widow supporting two children, and everyone else is 19 and a sorority sister and babysitting?

Here's what it means for Jeanne Ferguson:

* Two hours of commuting from Gaithersburg to College Park and back each day.

* Racing to get home from school before your 8-year-old gets home from school.

* Taking economics when you haven't had math in 20 years.

* Writing term papers when you haven't written anything other than a letter since you were 19.

It's scary, it seems ludicrous at times, and lots of people are doing it.

Older students make up more than 12 percent of the undergraduate population at the College Park campus, according to the university's Returning Students Program, run by counselors Beverly Greenfieg and Barbara Goldberg. The program offers counseling in reading, math and writing, sympathetic listeners and even a one-credit course called College Aims for Returning Students.

There's even a movie on the subject. "Educating Rita," which opens here today, is a romantic comedy about a tough, unhappily married English working girl who leaves her oafish husband and her job in a hairdressing salon to attend a university. Part of the education includes a tutorial with a drunken, disillusioned English professor. The story line hardly resembles the unfolding lives of most returning students, at once eager and apprehensive.

As a returning student, Jeanne Ferguson goes to school as she's never gone before.

She rarely cuts classes, and when she does, she frantically calls teaching assistants and classmates until she gets the notes. She sits in the front row instead of the back. She really follows the lecture. She doesn't daydream. She asks 10 questions in class instead of sitting quietly, in fear that her peers will think she is stupid. She doesn't care. For one thing, they're not her peers.

For Jeanne Ferguson, school is not a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, it is a training ground, a proving ground. She talks about "surviving" it--like boot camp.

"I want to be a good mom, I want to be a good student, I want to deal with this widow stuff, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to do it all." She looks pained. "I call it panic. Beverly Greenfieg calls it enthusiasm."

She hunched over the kitchen table one afternoon several weeks ago. Her 3-year-old daughter, Erin, was downstairs with Play-Doh, probably mushing it into the rug but Jeanne (pronounced Jeannie) resolved not to worry about it. Her 8-year-old, Megan, was quietly doing something else. The kitchen is Jeanne's favorite place. It's warm and bright and has a big window that looks out on the quiet street in the townhouse development where she lives. Plants line the window ledge. A stepladder in the corner doubles as a bookshelf.

She missed school today. Megan was sick and had to stay home from school. That meant Megan's mother stayed home from school, too, and missed her class, Developing Youth Programs. It is essentially an education course offered by the agricultural and extension education department. That's her Tuesday and Thursday class. Economics is Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. She has the College Aims course offered by the Returning Students program on Thursday afternoons.

There's a quiz next Tuesday in Youth Programs and she wanted to go to class in case the teacher talked about the quiz.

"I knew this would happen sooner or later," she says with a sigh. "I just wish it had happened later instead of sooner."

She lights a cigarette.

"When I was thinking about going back to work or going back to school, I asked myself, 'Which is easier?' " she says. "Work. You're given a job description with a set number of hours. With school, you don't know how many hours Chapter 7 is going to take to read. You don't know how many hours it's going to take to write a paper."

She still chose school.

"It was a value judgment," she explains. "It's about long-term goals. I always thought I'd like to go back to school. I didn't think it would be easy. The last time I took math I was 14 years old. You don't even know how much you've forgotten. Where 10 years ago I could make A's and B's, that's a much higher demand today. My counselor on death and dying told me that. I think she feels I have made too high demands on myself. Maybe she's right."

The money is tight, too. She isn't working. The family is supported wth funds from insurance and her husband's Social Security payments. "God willing and the creek don't rise, with a degree I'll get a job--a better-paying job than I could with the skills I have now," she rationalizes.

And then there is the guilt:

"There is this feeling that women are nurturers," she says, "and going back to school isn't nurturing anyone. It's nurturing my own desires."

The Roy Rogers in the Student Union looks like no other Roy Rogers you've seen--it is vast, dark, smoky, rows of booths and tables. Masses of jeans and sweatshirts. On this particular rainy Friday morning, book bags and umbrellas and extra people spill onto the floor. Some study. Some play cards. A lot smoke cigarettes. One young woman in a slicker sits pensively at a table alone, Sony Walkman in place, head propped gently on her hands.

Jeanne Ferguson doesn't even blink when she walks in. She scans the place for a table while stepping over someone's sprawled legs on the floor. After a month in school, she has accustomed herself to an environment that radiates with the aura of casual youth. She has also attained the student's bearing. She nonchalantly plops onto the floor and sits cross-legged in hallways outside classrooms like all the other jeans-clad students. The difference is that her jeans are pressed.

Still, she is fixated on the age difference between her and other students.

"Boy, I remember walking across campus the first few days," she recalls. "Everyone seemed so young. I really tend to zoom in on people who look a little older. Is that a teacher? A student? Have they been married? But you don't bolt across campus and run up to someone. One of the nicest things that happened to me was when a young man came up to me and asked me if I had a match for his cigarette.

"It was such a good feeling--that maybe there was a melding in. I was not unapproachable. I think that would really upset me if people thought I was unapproachable. Obviously, I really like people."

She looks astonishingly young--not much older than the kids she goes to school with. But close up, there are faint lines in the pale skin around the eyes and mouth that belie a student who's seen a little more life than the rest of them. The other students, though, seem oblivious.

The day before an economics quiz, a classmate, Linda Norman, called Ferguson to discuss questions on the exam. Another woman helping look after the children answered the phone. When Ferguson got on the line, she explained that that was the baby sitter who answered. Norman was surprised that Ferguson had children. Ferguson chuckles at this. "I said, 'Linda, I don't think you have any idea how old I am.' She said, 'Well, I figured you were a senior.' "

She sips coffee, a pack of Trues and her red lighter at her side. She takes a napkin and wipes food debris off the table. "Gross," she says, shaking her head. Cleaning off the table is a habit for this mother of two.

"It's kind of frustrating that I can't devote time to school now that I once could--the time that I want or need. Before, I really tried to scoot through with the minimum effort, knowing the professor would cover everything in lectures. I don't know if I know how to study properly now. If I could review everything I'd done that day in class, it would stay with me. That takes time."

She is so concerned with studying correctly that she sounds like a walking Guide to Better Study Habits: "It's helpful if you can read faster but the most important thing is to read so you comprehend."

Still, the specter of ever present youth bothers her sometimes. "I feel very isolated. I know if I go to University College the university's adult education campus at night I would feel more comfortable. But it's easier to find child care in the daytime. I'd rather go in the evening. I'd rather be with my peer group."

The fact that she is not with her peer group hit her with a jolt on orientation day. During the summer the University of Maryland sent her information--on dormitories, sororities . . . Orientation for transfer students was not much better.

"I didn't want to talk to some sophomore about dorm life," she says in irritation.

She went to an obligatory counseling session. She was worried about economics. The course in accounting she took during one of her bank jobs would help, but her math background was dismal. She told the graduate student counselor that she wanted to take economics despite her lack of math.

"She said, 'Open the economics book to chapter such and such and see if the math scares you. If it does, don't take the course,' " recalls Ferguson. "Well, nosirree. I'm going to do what I want to do. It may be hard, but I am not dumb." Her face flushes with anger.

"Her whole attitude was 'You poor little returning student, you don't know what you're up against.' Well, you may be right," she says as if talking to the graduate student. "I don't know what I'm up against, but I don't want you patronizing me, Little Miss Graduate Student."

She takes a hard puff on her cigarette and silently gathers up her books. Time for economics. n Tydings Hall, at noon on a rainy Friday, the hallways are lined with students waiting for classes. "I walked in here at the beginning," Ferguson says, "and there were these cute little girls flirting with their boyfriends. I was kind of embarrassed. Just the games that are played at that age."

She spots Linda Norman and they chat.

"Well, I made the sorority I wanted," Norman says. "I was really excited."

"Congratulations!" Ferguson says brightly.

Norman, a new member of Kappa Alpha Theta, pulls back her blue slicker to reveal a plastic button that proclaims, "I Love Theta."

Ferguson and Norman--who is 21 and lives with her parents in Bethesda--have gotten to know each other mainly through their phone conversations. "We can talk about most anything," Norman says. "Personal stuff, kids, school, even sororities." Norman laughs. "That's something really different for her. She's not really been exposed to them."

They file into class. In the back, a guy in red University of Maryland sweat pants quietly swigs chocolate milk from a carton.

The teaching assistant, Michael Kendix, is slight and boyish with close-cropped dark hair and wire-rim glasses.

Ferguson pages through her economics book. "Did you do all the reading?" she asks Norman anxiously. Norman shakes her head.

"Do you understand everything?" Ferguson asks. Norman shakes her head again.

The teaching assistant passes back quizzes taken during the last class. Ferguson remembers her first quiz--she got 13 out of 25 possible points. She drove home so upset that day that when she picked up her daughter, Megan took one look at her and asked, "Did you have a bad day?"

Yeah, really awful," Ferguson replied. Megan sympathetically put her arm around her mother and gave her a kiss.

Kendix is at Ferguson's desk with her corrected quiz. She takes a look at her grade. Nineteen out of 25. Norman squeals with delight at her score of 23.

"I like to have as much variation in the class as possible," says Kendix later on the subject of having a "different" student in class. "You get more ideas."

Says Linda Norman, "It seems like her only problem is getting her confidence back. It's just a matter of someone saying, 'You can do it.'"" feel myself losing control--like maybe I can't handle what I've set out to handle."

Jeanne Ferguson, subdued, confesses this self-doubt the following Monday afternoon. It is bright, unseasonably warm, and she is sitting on the grass of the campus mall. Her mouth is set, expressionless. Big, dark sunglasses hide eyes fatigued from "a lot of crying" this weekend. Memories of her late husband, Joe, haunted her all weekend. She didn't get any studying done.

She's also been suffering from an aching jaw and headaches. Her dentist's verdict: jaw clenching.

"I woke up in the middle of the night with visions of economics, my developing youth programs course, my children. I was very frightened. So scared . . . I feel like pulling the covers over my head. I feel like it's all catching up with me, and I want to get away from it."

Instead, she left the dishes in the sink and the beds unmade and came to school early to have some quiet time to study.

"I think, 'So what if I can't do this? So what if I have to drop a course?' Is it worth going crazy to get a piece of paper in your hand that says I'm smart? I know I'm smart."A couple of weeks ago, she dropped the College Aims for Returning Students course to cut her workload.

She got a C on her economics midterm.

"I'm a little disappointed," she says calmly. "I have done better in the past."

As for the quiz in Developing Youth Programs--she got an A.

Now, all she has to do is write her paper. "If I can just get rid of my kids for a few hours on Saturday--I know that sounds horrible--I can work on my paper uninterrupted."ene Owen, the instructor for Ferguson's Developing Youth Programs course, islisting types of statistical samples on the blackboard.

"Does this sound like gibberish?" he asks cheerfully.

"Yes," come some mumbled answers. He goes over it again and then divides the class into groups to work on projects. Ferguson is working with Suzette Guiffrey, a 21-year-old student in the class.

"You wouldn't know she was an older student by looking at her," Guiffrey says of Ferguson. "The only thing I've noticed is that she doesn't seem to be nervous about asking questions. She's not self-conscious. When you're younger, there's peer pressure not to ask questions. Sometimes I wish I was older and didn't care about how I looked."

"I care about how I look!" cries Ferguson.

"No, I mean you're not self-conscious," says Guiffrey. "I wish I was older and could ask questions and not have people think, 'Oh, what a kiss-butt.' "

Returning students, says Owen, "are more aware of what they want out of class. They're more directed. Though I know sometimes Jeanne thinks she's not and she's frightened.

"From a teacher's point of view, they're often not as flexible. By the time you get to be 30 or 35, you have a particular world view. The advantage is that you do bring a lot of experience."

Owen, who is 35, calls Ferguson "almost super-conscientious. She knows what she wants and has a better idea of how to get it."A week ago, Jeanne Ferguson showed up for economics class, dreading the return of the corrected third quiz the class had taken. Kendix, the teaching assistant, walked among the desks distributing the graded quizzes. "If it's bad, turn it over," Ferguson mumbled under her breath as Kendix approached with her paper. He just smiled and handed it to her.

She got a perfect score.