Bethesda resident Angie Vignola, 74, began taking college courses 13 years ago on a dare from a friend.

Yesterday, the dare paid off when Vignola and 3,449 other University of Maryland students were awarded undergraduate degrees.

"I hadn't really thought about getting a degree," said Vignola, who majored in English and was enrolled in the university along with her three grandchildren. "I was just having fun learning." A free-lance writer, she said she plans to continue working on feature stories.

The school's 194th commencement began with morning ceremonies at Cole Field House and an address by Peter F. O'Malley, former chairman of the university's Board of Regents, who is reported to be considering running for governor. O'Malley told graduates that they were members of a "merit society . . .where individual worth, individual character, and individual achievement are central.

"America's new freedom and equality have forced on you the obligations of the merit society," he said. "The crutches are gone; excuses will no longer work. You will be judged largely on how you perform, on how good you are. As our generation struggled for access, your generation's struggle will be for excellence."

O'Malley was also one of three honorary degree recipients recognized at the main ceremony. The others were Rep. Augustus (Gus) Hawkins (D-Calif.) and St. Clair Wright, an Annapolis preservationist.

Valedictorian Andrew Trice, 21, of Federalsburg, Md., who switched from classical piano training to computer science courses, talked about how college prepares one for life. He will enroll next fall in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"College sets the stage," he said, "but it's not the whole show."