For Tony Douglass, 28, the University of the District of Columbia offered a shot at a college education that changed his negative outlook on life. For Marion Henderson, 50, UDC was a new experience at a time when her friends were beginning to think about retirement. And for 23-year-old Daryl Freeman, Washington's youngest university was the road to an Ivy League school.

UDC boasts that it has something to offer everyone, and indeed its students are significantly different from students at other Washington-area universities. Their average age is 27, most work full or part time.

Many attend school at night, arriving for class in work-wrinkled skirts and shirts. They are office managers, security guards, secretaries and teachers with bills to pay and families to raise. They are coming to UDC for classes that they hope will give them a leg up on the slippery economic ladder.

Some students come to UDC because the tuition is more affordable than at other schools in the area, others because of UDC's open enrollment policy, many because UDC offers a wide range of night classes. Some are working toward degrees, others are gaining new job skills or are taking courses for their own enjoyment.

While many technical students finish their programs in two years, some degree-seeking students may take five or six years to graudate. These are the students who "stop out" when money, job or family pressures force them to take a break, but many return, said UDC spokesman John Britton.

UDC is Washington's second largest university -- George Washington University is the biggest -- and more than 80 percent of UDC students are black, making it the largest predominantly black university in the nation. With 14,115 students, UDC ranks just ahead of Howard in enrollment. The science programs, in particular, also have attracted a large number of students from Africa and the Middle East.

"UDC was built for me. It was built for young, poor blacks in this city. I would be a fool not to go," says Tony Douglass.

Douglass, a short man with an engaging smile, says he was labeled the stereotypical "problem child" from Anacostia. He was arrested at 18 on a drug-related charge, he said, and spent a few months in jail. He finished high school at the D.C. Street Academy in 1973 and took a variety of odd jobs.

But Douglass said he grew tired of feeling he was smarter than the people who scrutinized him for jobs, so in 1976 he enrolled in D.C. Teachers' College, which soon became part of UDC. His writing skills and study habits were poor, however, and he failed half his courses, he says.

In 1978, Douglass said, things improved. First, after reading a book that related poor diet to poor performance, he became a vegetarian and stopped eating foods with additives. He is convinced it enabled him to concentrate on his studies. Second, he met Steven Diner, who is currently the head of UDC's urban studies department. Douglass said he was greatly impressed with Diner's knowledge of the history of Washington.

"He was a challenge to me," said Douglass.

Since then Douglass and Diner have worked closely on several research projects. Last semester, Douglass was an intern with City Council Member Betty Anne Kane, and says he would like to return when he graduates in May.

Marion Henderson is a secretarial science student from Southeast who has been taking evening classes since 1975, and is considering working toward a bachelors degree in business administration. Henderson says she looks forward to attending class twice a week even though it means her husband must pick her up at night and her time to prepare fancy meals is limited to the weekends.

"I was a little apprehensive about registering. I thought I would be the oldest one, but I went and saw people every age, and even older than me," she said.

Henderson is a smartly dressed woman with wisps of gray in her hair and a touch of "down South" in her voice. She giggles as she explains her surprise at being so well accepted by younger students. Then she arches her eyebrows and speaks of her friends. "A lot of them tried to discourage me, but I know myself why I'm here."

Before she decided to go to UDC, Henderson said, she took refresher math and English courses at various high schools. "It took a great effort to walk back into school after such a long time."

Daryl Freeman wasn't particularly interested in going to college when he graduated from Woodson High School in 1976. But Freeman not only finished UDC, he earned a masters degree in education and administrative planning from Harvard in 1980 and is working for the city's budget office.

"I'd like to become city manager somewhere," he said.

Freeman concedes there is still a stigma attached to UDC students. Some city residents see UDC as the school of "last resort" for students not accepted elsewhere. But, says Freeman, the "quality is evident by my going to an Ivy League school and doing well. . . . I felt this university was providing me with the kind of education that was comparable to a Howard University or AU American University or GW George Washington University ."

"When I first came into the university UDC , my self assurance was pretty low," said the soft-spoken Freeman. He decided to try his luck anyway. He worked during the day, took classes at night and graduated with honors.

"This is one of the greatest beginnings I could ever wish to have," Freeman said.

When he got to Harvard, Freeman recalled, many people had not heard of UDC, and did not "have a perception of a public college." But he says his experience studying in an urban environment allowed him to share with his classmates a vantage point that most of them did not have.