Linda Garcia, 22, recently dined with her father in an Arlington restaurant and proudly helped pay for her meal with quarters and dimes she counted out by herself.

It was a personal truimph for Miss Garcia, who is mentally retarded. Until she attended a unique Northern Virginia program designed to teach the skills of daily living to retarded adults, she did not know how to make change.

Last night, in a simple ceremony, Linda Garcia and 52 other retarded adults were "graduated" from the College for Living, a Northern Virginia Association for Regarded Citizens, Inc., program operated in conjunction with Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Campus.

The College for Living curriculum was essentially designed by the retarded themselves, who requested that a number of different courses on everyday living skills be taught, said Terry D. Morlock, an association employee. Courses were taught in such subjects as apartment living skills, money management, human sexuality, and Getting to Know Your Feelings and Those of Others, he said.

"The whole idea of the program is to help the retarded gain independence so that someday they can live on their own," Morlock said. "Retarded adults don't want to get stuck watching television all day or weaving baskets. They want to get out into the community, on their own."

Phyllis Wiczer, 38, who like Garcia is employed at the Sheltered Occupational Center of Northern Virginia in Arlington, attended the class on Getting to Know Your Feelings.

"I like to know more about people, and making them feel happy, like I am," she said. "It has been hard in the past, expressing our feelings, the things that are in your heart. But we talked things out, the good and bad feelings, and it was OK," she added.

Because of the classes, which she attended for six of the eight sessions, Wiczer said she is better able to handle her job, which currently involves letter and envelope collation.

Debbie Keller, 24, who was one of two instructors in the apartment skills class, taught her seven students how to look for an apartment and how to fill out the application form required by landlords.

"Most retarded people don't drive cars, so we suggested they think about an apartment near stores and bus routes," she said. "And then it's the little things that they need to know, like having their Social Security card on them, and knowing the name and telephone number of their job supervisor when they make an application."

Most of her students now live in supervised environments, "but all of them want to move out on their own someday," she added.

Richard Ferlazzo, 35, now lives with his mother in Arlington and is employed in the Federal Aviation Administration cafeteria in the District. He enrolled in both the money management and cooking classes, "and I paid the $10 tuition fees by my own self," he said.

Ferlajzo said he like the classes "because I learned things. Like how to buy food for a group, and how to cook things like tuna fish casserole and macaroni and cheese. I always wanted to take classes like this before, but they were never available," he said.

Morlock said the idea for the classes developed last October after he read an article about a similar program in Denver. The director of the noncredit continuing education program at Northern Virginia Community College, Reading W. Black, then agreed to make classroom space available on the Annandale campus, Morlock said.

"We wanted these students to feel as if they were attending a regular college, so we scheduled their classes at the same time as our normal courses," Black said.

The next semester ofthe College for living will begin next month, Morlock said.