Dorothy Gilliam's column yesterday incorrectly described the mission of helicopters overhead during Brown University's graduation ceremony. They were part of security arrangements for King Hussein of Jordan.

We left Washington early Saturday morning for Brown University in Rhode Island. Sam and I, with our daughter, Leah, and our friends, Jim and Gail, reached Providence by late afternoon. Of course we had the obligatory camera, 10 rolls of film and two spare Kodaks to make sure we captured the history-making event on film.

The rest of our contingent, my sister, Evelyn, and nephew, Blair, arrived in Providence at about the time that another parent, King Hussein I, was speaking in august Sayles Hall. Unlike the king, who flew in from Jordan on his royal jet, Evelyn and Blair drove 24 hours from Kentucky in their Ford.

Although commencement at Brown is a three-day pageant of tradition and ceremony, for us, like the thousands of other parents and friends who gathered, the pomp and circumstance was merely a backdrop for the real stars -- our kids. Our own D.C.- born-and-bred daughter, Stephanie, played host to seven people as she tried to calm her own graduation jitters. "My family's here," she screamed to a girlfriend, running to us and trying to get her arms around us all. And late that night, with the dust of the road only a memory, we gathered in a Newport restaurant to toast her achievement. Our middle daughter, Melissa, though absent, was very much in our thoughts.

On the second day, Sunday, we listened to a witty and elegant baccalaureate address by John Rowe Workman, a classics professor who is retiring after 38 years. Workman used President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery, which he called "one of the most flagrant insults on record" to demonstrate the need for "even a little historical sensitivity."

"Keep a perspective of history before you all the time," he exhorted the graduates, "not to answer contests in trivia, but so that your sense of being may be more buoyant . . . so you will understand who you are and where you are going . . . . "

The third day, Brown's 217th commencement opened to the ringing dissonnace of bells from the First Baptist Meeting House summoning the senior class to the final ceremony. As three bands played the rolling, rollicking commencement march, we stood with our three cameras at the ready, waiting for the graduates to stream through the Van Wickle Gates for the symbolic awarding of the baccalaureate degree.

Then the moment came. We saw her walk through the gate, and 21 years flashed before my eyes as inside I screamed with joy to see my baby and to know that she had arrived and was now a woman.

Then we gathered on the campus green for the commencement ceremony. The New England sun was soft and gently warming. Only the occasional whir of helicopters, security for Joan and Walter Mondale whose son was graduating, jarred the calm of exhortatory oration.

We listened to speeches by two women selected by their peers to be class orators. Ann Arthur of Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of West Indian immigrants, brought an uneasy hush to the crowd and applause from most of her peers. She repeatedly juxtaposed today's materialism and individualism with the responsibility to deal actively with issues of war, peace, poverty, racism and sexism:

"We challenge nations to uphold democratic principles and ignore how South Africa makes a mockery of those very same principles," she said. "And Brown University, which prides itself as being a college that nurtures America's rising leaders, refuses to totally divest of all its holdings in U.S. companies doing business in South Africa!"

Brown President Howard R. Swearer expanded the theme of social responsibility. Reminding graduates that there is a loyalty greater than that to self or even to one's ethnic community, he challenged them to "full participation in the search for the common good within the broader, diverse society."

Following the commencement exercise, we hugged our baby, now a woman, repeatedly congratulating her as she said goodbye to departing friends. Our youngest daughter, Leah, also was filled with joy, and in the midst of the excitement, I couldn't help but look at her and say, with very mixed emotions, "In four years, it will be your turn."

After working very hard and dreaming of the day when our firstborn would graduate from college and our last-born would begin her trek through university life, I have to admit the joy I shared with family and friends last weekend was every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be.