Rosemary Walsh and John Pruessner stood outside Lisner auditorium yesterday fidgeting with graduation robes, anxious for the start of the ceremony.

For Walsh, Pruessner and hundreds of others, yesterday was a day of self-pride, reminiscence and nervousness. About 21,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students were eligible to receive degrees from George Washington University in the city, although not all participated in one of the six ceremonies throughout the day.

"I am very proud of myself," said Walsh, who after three years of part-time study was to receive a master of fine arts degree in dramatic arts. "John and I were talking about it earlier, what the day meant, the 36 hours of courses, a thesis, a thesis production and all the other things we went through.

"Two things are at play when I think about it," she said. "The sentimental part, the nostalgia, walking through the classrooms where we won't walk anymore, the theater here where we acted . . . .

"The other thing is pride, knowing that I worked for this," Walsh said. "I wanted to come and wear the robe and stand and say I have done it."

"It's a celebration," said Pruessner, whose mother joined him here from Kansas. He worked for 3 1/2 years as a clerical typist in the university's housing office to take advantage of lower tuition offered to full-time employes. "After all this, I plan to go to New York [City, to seek acting jobs] and starve."

Wals and Pruessner joined a procession of about 80 students into the auditorium as relatives and friends stood in the half-filled room listening to traditional graduation music pumped from a stage organ. Camera flashcubes popped, and some of those in the audience whislted and cheered. Parents and grandparents clutched the 68-page graduation booklet close to their chests.

The speaker for the commencement, Lisle C. Carter Jr., president of the University of the District of Columbia, asked the graduates to be mindful of serious, unanswered questions that remain a blemish on the nation's record of achievements.

"For the most . . . the questions are about ideals not achieved; the loss of virtues; a process gone awry, a widening malaise," said Carter, who was also honored yesterday with an honorary doctorate.

"Too many Americans still do not have, in Lincoln's phrase, 'an unfettered start in the race of life,'" Carter said. "And a high proportion of those who do not are blacks, Hispanics and native Americans. In a nation of our wealth, the number of poor, malnourished and needlessly ill and the great disparties of income call out for redress. But the times seem set against striking the remaining fetters."

Diana Fassett, who was awarded a master's degree in women's studies, said she was disappointed by Carter's speech.

"In his quote from Lincoln, he didn't mention women, and we were quite distressed about that," said Fassett, who uses "my own name" rather than a married name. "Women should not be forgotten. People in his position have made these oversights for too long."