The 24-year-old South African student quietly recounted that fateful day when she left her home in the black township of Soweto just outside Johannesburg.

The daily violence and unrest after months of protests against the official policy of apartheid, or racial separation, became more than she could bear, so she left before anyone could talk her out of it, she said at a gathering in Howard County last weekend.

"I couldn't live in a place where I could only get a basic education. The way I see it, I would either be in prison or dead," said the woman, a first-year business administration student at Berea College in Kentucky.

Although she found her way safely to a life of exile, the woman said she still lives in fear that the cycle of violence between protests and government crackdowns will claim her parents, two sisters and brother before she has a chance to see them again.

"I miss them quite a lot. Once in a while I call them and write, but it is expensive and nothing like seeing them," she said.

The woman and 22 other black South African students are studying at colleges and universities in the "We though this was a very small thing we could do."

-- Lucy Steinitz

United States under a program called the Bishop Desmond Tutu Southern Africa Scholarship Fund. The students, who range in age from 19 to 32, were invited to Howard County last weekend as guests of the Columbia Association, a quasi-governmental organization that maintains recreational and other facilities in Columbia. Citing concerns for their families back in South Africa, the students asked that their names not be published.

The New York City-based scholarship program was established in 1984 at Tutu's request shortly after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, according to its director, Bernice Powell. It is designed to bring South African refugees to the United States to give them free college educations. Most of the students come from southern African countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, where they had sought refuge.

Students selected to participate in the program are guaranteed full four-year scholarships. The fund, which is financed through private and corporate donations, provides the students with money for books, clothing and other expenses. "The idea is that these refugees have a right to a higher education," which is very difficult for them to attain in South Africa, Powell said.

Powell said that many of the students go on for advanced degrees on their own and often stay in the United States because they do not believe there is much opportunity in South Africa.

On Friday the students took a break from their studies and flew into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where they met the host families who offered to put them up for the weekend. The gathering was arranged by a group of Columbia residents who heard about the program and were interested in meeting students from South Africa.

Marcy and Bill Amos volunteered to host a student after reading about the group in a local publication.

"My husband and I have hosted students from other countries for 17 years, but never one from South Africa. We thought this could be a way for us to learn more about what is going on there," Marcy Amos said.

Lucy Steinitz and her husband Bernd Kiekebusch said they volunteered their home because they feel strongly about the unfairness blacks are subjected to in South Africa. "We thought this was a very small thing we could do for a student and a country that is of tremendous interest to us," Steinitz said.

From the airport the students went to Howard Community College, where they spent the evening talking with Columbians interested in the program about difficulties they have faced living in a new country.

The adjustment has been especially difficult for a 27-year-old freshman at Drew University in New Jersey who fled South Africa seven years ago, leaving a wife and son. He said he was eager to leave to continue his education and he felt he had to leave his family behind because it would have been hard to travel with his son. "I felt so isolated when I came here. It seems like Americans are always so busy and don't care about helping others," he said in broken English.

Powell said the students were selected to participate in the program based on scores they received on an exam similar to the Scholastic Aptitude Test that college-bound students in the United States must take. The exam was administered to students while they were living in the refugee camps.

"They've basically got to show that they have the skills necessary to perform on the college level," Powell said.