Five years after he tangled with the Fairfax County school system, leaving high school without graduating, Tom Brownsword has found life without a diploma no handicap.

In 1981, Brownsword dropped out of South Lakes High School in Reston after school officials refused his request to spend the spring semester of his senior year hiking the Appalachian Trail. He had proposed to interview park officials for a political science class and to write a paper about his experiences.

His school principal had approved the request, but school system administrators said the rules permitted no activities to substitute for required classwork. So Brownsword, an honor student voted "most independent" by his classmates, obtained permission from Brown University to enroll in the fall without graduating from high school.

With the blessings of his parents, he left high school in April 1981 and spent four months hiking from Georgia to Maine, a distance of 2,100 miles.

Entering Brown without a high school diploma, he was greeted as a minor celebrity. The campus newspaper wrote a story about him, but he said the photograph was so unrecognizable that he was not singled out for special attention. "I pretty much sank right into anonymity," he said in a recent interview from his parents' home in Reston.

Unlike the Fairfax County schools, Brown had few rules. Several years before Brownsword enrolled, the university abolished most requirements that students take specific courses in order to graduate.

Brownsword said he easily obtained permission to take a year off from college to work in a camp for emotionally disturbed children in Rome, Ga., run by the Campeonado Foundation.

When he graduated this spring, five years after enrolling, it was magna cum laude, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society, and with the departmental prize for the most distinguished senior history thesis. A history major, Brownsword wrote about a Colonial-era farmer in Rhode Island who rose from modest means to riches and whose 95-year life witnessed major social changes in America.

Brownsword, 23, who said he was active in an unsuccessful student campaign to persuade the university's trustees to sell its stock of companies doing business in South Africa, is now looking for a job that will enable him to pursue social activism. He is waiting to hear about a legal research post with a public interest law group, and he is considering going to law school eventually.

He has maintained his interest in the outdoors and spent six days recently canoeing down the Allagash River in Maine with a friend.

At one point, he said, he thought about taking an examination to obtain a substitute for the high school diploma he never received. Now that he is a college graduate, Brownsword said, it does not seem necessary.

Five years after the young man's tussle with the school system, it is extremely unlikely that Fairfax officials would grant permission for another student to leave school for a similar reason, said Delores Bohen, a spokesman for the county schools.