One thing sticks out in Antoinette Ford's mind about her growing-up years in Philadelphia: Her parents taught her that she had to work for what she got.

So it seemed only natural to her when she became interested in politics 10 years ago that she join the Republican Party.

"When you become politically active you naturally draw to people who think similar to you, and who have been supportive of you and who seem to offer what is best for you," Ford said.

"My basic philosophy is you cannot help anyone until you first help yourself. In helping yourself you do need a lot of support; none of us does anything alone. But you have to take primary responsibility for your own success yourself.

"If you think about it, that's basically the Republican philosophy."

It may be a little ironic that Ford, 39, has stepped into the Reagan administration as assistant administrator in the Agency for International Development, heading its Near East Bureau: her job is, in effect, to provide money and other help to underdeveloped countries.

But Ford points out that people in these countries are also helping themselves. "The excitement and pleasure these people have when they can see results of their efforts and our efforts really gives you a feeling of satisfaction."

The Near East Bureau is the largest in the Agency for International Development (AID), part of the State Department. AID helps struggling countries to develop their human and economic resources, and it promotes economic and political stability in friendly countries. The agency's programs involve such things as providing food and medical assistance, building roads, hospitals and schools, and helping in agricultural production. AID sends people, as well as money, to the countries it helps.

Ford, one of the few black women appointees in Reagan's administration, comes into an administration that has spurred much controversy in the black community. She said she understands that blacks have strong views on Reagan's policies. Yet being a Republican was a decision she made 10 years ago and accepting the job in the Reagan administration was a decision she felt was best for her career, she said.

"It's not like the Republicans are the good guys and the Democrats are the bad guys. It ain't that. It's where you find support and common interests and basic philosophy."

Ford was sworn into office July 30, but she already has traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to check on an AID project there -- The Suez Cement Plant. She also visited a village where AID is supervising a water project and said she witnessed "the excitement and pleasure that these people have about being able to get water from a tap instead of pulling it from a well."

The Near East Bureau oversees projects in 11 countries: Egypt, Israel, Oman, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Portugal and Italy. Ford said she plans to visit all of the countries this year.

"Part of my job is testifying before Congress about what is going on with these projects," Ford explained. "And in order to be able to do this, I will have to find out what's going on."

Ford is the top administrator in the Near East Bureau, whose proposed budget for fiscal 1982 is $1.9 billion. Her salary is $50,112.

Ford said she took the job because she sees it as a good stepping stone in her career.

"My criteria for accepting a job are that it be substantive, consistent with my own ideas and beliefs, and in a position where I would still be able to grow and where I would have direct line in responsibility. I run a bureau. In fact, I run the largest (AID) bureau in terms of responsibility, budget and program size."

Before joining the Reagan Administration, Ford was a manufacturing superintendent for the Fisher Body Division of General Motors Corp. Prior to that, she had been corporate manager for career planning and managerial recruiting at GM in Detroit. Ford also has been a consultant to several major corporations, and served as deputy director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, a member of the Presidential Clemency Board and on the D.C. City Council.

She grew up in Philadelphia and has worked since she was 15 years old. "I was expected not to expect people to give me things," Ford recalled of her upbringing. "When I was 15, I wanted a black dress and Mom said, 'No you're too young to have one. And besides, money doesn't grow on trees. If you want one go out and buy it.' So I did. I went out and got a job as a salad girl at the psychiatric hospital (Philadelphia Psychiatric Institute), and I have been working since then."

Ford moved to the District in 1963 at the age of 21 and entered graduate school at American University. She had received her bachelor's degree in biology from Chestnut Hill College that same year. After receiving her master's degree from American University in 1966, Ford was chosen as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, where she studied biological oceanography. But she worked as an oceanographer for only a short time.

Her political career began, she said, when she was chosen a White House Fellow in 1971, serving as special assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury. In that position, she represented the United States in Southeast Asia, Japan and Africa.

"I worked on campaigns for Republican candidates both local and nationally. I was cochairman in the state of Michigan for the Connally campaign (in 1980) and I also worked for Reagan. When you're politically involved you do everything from canvassing to making phone calls."

After Reagan was elected, she was asked to be on the transition team. She said she was considered for several other positions before being nominated for the AID post.

Ford expressed a feeling of closeness to the Republican Party: "Every political appointment I've received has been under a Republican administration. And you don't forget that."