Patricia Richards, a short, brown-skinned woman, swallowed hard and walked to the podium. As the official representative of the University of Maryland class of 1980, the 21-year-old biochemistry major addressed 18,000 parents, teachers and fellow graduates.

"We have grown to be people of mature intellect," Richards pronounced at last week's commencement exercises. "Our friends supplied the primary ingredient for success -- competition."

The words rang clear, but four years ago, said the unassuming Richards, she would never have expected to be commencement speaker for her class, plucked from among the best and brightest to address all who attended the class of 1980 commencement exercises.

There is no doubt, however, that today Richards meets the university's criterion that the commencement speaker be "among the top honor students at the school each year."

"We like to select an outstanding student who has something in their background that sets them apart from others," said university spokesman Roz Hiebert. "Being female, black, and a biochemistry major, Patricia very definitely fits that description."

Richards' life at the school has not always been easy. At one pont, she wondered if she would even make it in her chosen field or biochemistry.

"I told myself that if I didn't make at least an 80 in a zoology class that I would get out of the sciences," Richard's remembers. She not only made an 83 on that exam, during her sophomore year, but outscored everyone in her section.

Some students worry about whether they will pass or fail their courses. Richards worries about whether she can consistently cross the line between being an average student and an honor student, which, by her standards, is the line between failure and success.

That attitude, according to Richards' friends and family, is what spurred her to earn a 3.5 grade point average, the equivalent of a B-plus in biochemistry -- generally considered one of the most difficult majors at the university.

"I feel that if you can say the word 'fail,' it helps to make you work harder," she said.

From all accounts, that attitude has been with Richards ever since she graduated from high school. She finished a year early at Elizabeth Seton Senior High School, a private Catholic school in Prince George's County, then went on to the University of Maryland a year behind her older sister, Dawn.

"I wasn't doing smashingly well at first," Patricia Richards recalls. "I ended up having to make some real sacrifices and work some very long hours in order to make it in class."

After her sophomore year, she became a consistently high-scoring student in her highly competitive pre-med classes. She paid the price in time and effort, spending so much time studying that her parents had a special telephone number to call at the university library if they needed her or had some message to pass along.

"They reached me by calling this pay phone number on the third floor of the library," said Patricia. "I would always sit in one general area where I could hear the phone."

She spent many evenings in the library, especially around exam time, staying through the dinner hour and on until 11 p.m.

Richards lives at home with her father, mother and sister in a comfortable, predominantly black, middle-class community in Lanham. Her father Jesse is a civilian flight engineer instructor at Andrews Air Force Base and her mother, Margaret, is an insurance examiner for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Patricia has not spent all of her time studying, however. For the past two years, she has counseled many first-year minority students who had problems with chemistry, biology, or other science and math courses. This year she spent about nine hours a week advising students on course strageties and career planning.

"It was important to me because I thought I could help some of the freshmen avoid some of the problems with course selection that I ran into during my first year," said Richards. "For example, there was an advanced math course that I should have taken first year that held up my progress in later courses."

Richards said that being a black female, and thus a minority within a minority, had little effect on her performance in the traditionally white, male-dominated department of biochemistry.

"I never really thought very much about the fact that there weren't many girls in the class," she said. "It always seemed that if there were only a few girls in the class, they would end up being some of the best students."

Richards says that she was never really affected by the racial animosities that have occasionally spilled over at Maryland about issues like affirmative action and Afro-American studies.

Richards is now looking forward to medical school next year. She has been admitted to both the University of Maryland and George Washington University medical schools. She is waiting, however, to learn whether she will get any scholarship money from the Air Force program before making a final decision.

"I am really looking forward to going to medical school," she says. "There will be more competition, but I don't think competition is bad when it equips you to be more effective in helping others."