Brenda Smith, 32, said she was intimidated at first, because she "had never picked up a hammer before." Male students teased her because she sometimes wore nail polish and lipstick, but "the people who run this program really care. They stuck behind me . . . . "

Now, she said, "I love working with my hands," and she hopes to become a construction manager. Smith was one of 29 Washington-area residents who last night became the first graduates of a program sponsored by the Potomac Electric Power Co. and the D.C. schools to give training in housing rehabilitation, weatherization and project management.

The students received their diplomas at a ceremony at the Howard Inn on Georgia Avenue NW, attended by Pepco officials and representatives of other businesses as well as D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie and school board members.

"This class will always have a special place," said Soyini Ahmad, executive director of the job training program, known as Action to Rehabilitate Community Housing. "It's like the first child. You've spoiled them and learned from their mistakes . . . . "

The program involved 26 weeks of instruction and experience, and a review of basic education skills for some students.

Sponsors of the program hope that in addition to providing training for unemployed and underemployed people, the program will produce skilled workers to improve low-income and abandoned housing in the District. All of the graduates have been placed in jobs.

The program center opened in March in the former Nichols Avenue Elementary School, 2427 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. Trainees learn such skills as carpentry, sheet-rock hanging, and weatherstripping installation while they rehabilitate facilities in the community such as senior citizens' homes, group homes and housing for the poor.

Students 18 and older are recruited for the program through city agencies or community-based programs. Among the first graduates are five women.

Smith, who said the program had been difficult for her at first "because I had a stereotype in my mind" and had "felt like I was losing {a part of being a woman} by doing this" will stay on with the program as an employe while continuing her training.

Graduate Richard Browne, 32, a former firefighter, believes he, too, has found his niche in the career world. Next week Browne expects to start his first supervisory job, working for a private rehabilitation company as a crew leader, earning $20,000 a year.

"I was tentative about pursuing this program," he said. "It's been a challenge, but I'm very happy to have had this opportunity. I never had the chance to be in a managing position before. I've always been an Indian. Now I get a chance to be a chief."