Thousands of miles from the rubble in Libya, a crowd of students at the University of New Hampshire watched in shocked silence as President Reagan announced on television last month that the United States had "done what we had to do." A few wept. Other students shook their heads in disbelief.

"My friends were all of a sudden panicked -- 'Oh my God! This could happen to us,' " said Amanda Waterfield, a 19-year-old freshman.

Other recent events -- the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the fatal explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, terrorism abroad -- have shaken the characteristic optimism of students here. For the most part, however, they are content to leave such matters to the experts, and they trust their leaders.

"Up here, I'm kind of sheltered. It's like my own little world. I can dip in and out if I want to," said Sharon Van Dalsum, 22, a junior from Nashua, as she sunbathed outside the Chi Omega sorority house.

Unlike the children of the Great Depression or the 1960s, this group has no social glue that binds it -- no Vietnam war, no civil rights movement, no overwhelming economic crisis. At this mostly white and middle-class state university, where red brick buildings stand beside pine forests, students are satisfied with the present and confident about the future. They have one cause -- themselves.

By their own description, these undergraduates are self-centered, materialistic and practical. Life has been good to them, and they expect more of the same, believing that they can overcome any obstacles. To many, happiness means a $30,000-a-year job without boredom, a sizable house, a good family life -- and maybe a cottage on Cape Cod, a boat and a Rolex watch.

"Everybody is thinking about how they're going to make it," said Jay Ablondi, 20, a junior from Framingham, Mass., and president of the student government. "They've grown up -- at least I have -- without any major world events that have shaped the generation. Everyone is focused on themselves and what success can bring."

Ablondi said his father, a carpenter, "worked harder than any man I've ever known," and his mother took a job when Jay, the youngest of six children, left home. The lanky political science major is awed that his parents put them all through college. He expects to earn more money than they have, but he adds, "I hope I'm as happy as my parents."

Large numbers of Ablondi's campus constituents, like 60 percent of young people across the country, voted for Reagan. They say they admire the tough, stand-up image Reagan has shown the world and credit him for a healthy economy in which they expect to prosper. They like him even though they disagree with some of his policies -- including his support for counterrevolutionaries in Central America and nuclear power at home.

Ablondi broke with most of his peers in voting for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 -- citing Mondale's commitment to traditional Democratic social programs -- but said he thinks that Reagan has been a good president. He praises Reagan for rebuilding the American economy and for "decisiveness and confidence in himself . . . . He's known how to be president."

The student body president looks for political candidates who, like Reagan, espouse a "theme of opportunity." But he and other students resist political labels, refusing to be called conservative or liberal. This generation, Ablondi said, "agrees with the values of caring for people and being morally accountable, but we don't necessarily agree with the old politicians' ways." For example, he likes the concept of "workfare," which requires welfare recipients to work in exchange for public assistance. 'I Don't Want to be Poor'

Chris Peterson, 22, a senior from Manchester, is the first in his family to go to college. His father joined the Navy at 17 and later earned his high-school equivalency diploma. His mother had no money for college. Student loans have helped Peterson continue his education, and he, like others, voiced concern about federal cuts in aid to undergraduates. He is a psychology major and works at a children's center here -- but not to prepare for a career in child development. He intends to open a chain of day-care centers, and he looks at his job here as training for that future.

"I don't want to teach," said Peterson, sitting with a dozen of his fraternity brothers in the Tau Kappa Epsilon house. "Somebody has to do it, but it's not going to be me. I don't want to be poor."

Reagan belonged to Tau Kappa Epsilon at Eureka College in Illinois, and its members here jokingly insist on respect for the president because "he's our brother." Like all but one of the young men who joined in a rowdy discussion at the fraternity house, Peterson supported Reagan's decision to bomb Libya. "Generally, I agree with what he does as right for us," he said.

Asked who would be willing to fight in a war against terrorism, all of the young men raised their hands. "That is a cause I would go for," Peterson said. "With Libya, it's easy to see these people are terrorists."

At the fraternity house and across the wooded campus, where the roar of jets from nearby Pease Air Force Base can be heard all day, students were quick to dismiss the Soviet Union as a potential instigator of nuclear war. They are far more concerned about nuclear weapons in the hands of less stable nations. "If Third World countries get a hold of one, who knows what could happen," said Mike Sweeney, 22, a business administration major from Woburn, Mass. Likewise, the students have much concern about nuclear power locally.

The long-stalled Seabrook nuclear power plant is a few miles from campus, and the state is among several being considered as a site for a nuclear-waste dump. Many students say they feel that they cannot influence such decisions.

"There's nothing that any one of us can do," said Patti Balon, 20, a sophomore from Nashua, a thriving business community in the state's prosperous southern tier. Balon's father sells heavy Mercedes trucks. Her mother is an accountant. Her brother, Peter, graduated from the university's highly competitive business school last week, and his gift will be a new car.

"I think everyone in our generation will be classified as workaholics," said Balon, who earned $6,000 last summer working in maintenance at a plastic-container factory. She saved $2,000 and "just went out and had a good time" with the rest. Unlike her mother, Balon said, she has no guilt about spending money on herself or gifts for her mother. Like many students here, Balon worked to keep busy and pay for extras, such as concerts and travel.

Balon, interviewed in the student union during a study session for final exams, is majoring in communications. She said she thought that many women here -- women are 56 percent of the student population -- had come to earn "their MRS degrees."

But the dozen or so sorority sisters sunbathing on the lawn at the Chi Omega house vehemently disagreed. Many said they were too busy with studies and jobs for romantic relationships. Several pointed out, with some pride, that only one of the 28 senior sisters was engaged to be married. Women Seek Independent Lives

"My mother thinks I'm doomed for life because I'm not engaged," said Susan Corley, 21, of Somerville, N.J., as a Bruce Springsteen song floated from a second-story window of the gray colonial house. "I would feel just awful if I had to depend on my husband to support me."

Corley and other women spoke about their desires for independence and said they were willing to delay starting families until they had established themselves professionally. Many of these women have parents who are divorced. They say they are determined to avoid that result.

"The family is important -- succeeding, doing the best you can," said Shelley White, 22, of Grosse Point, Mich., who will be a hotel-management trainee with Marriott Corp. after graduation.

In a small, cluttered office at the student union building, Lizbeth Heyer, 22, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, also spoke about family values. Her father is an architect, and her mother is a college professor. When she visited Washington with them in October 1973, she went to the White House, not as a tourist but as a protester: It was the day after the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when President Richard M. Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Today, there is a campaign poster for Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro on the front door of the Heyers' home.

Heyer is an activist in the Progressive Student Network, a collective of liberal political groups. As at other schools across the country, there has been a moderate return of student activism at this 4,000-acre university, founded in 1866 to educate the children of the state's farmers and laborers. Shanties were erected in front of the library to protest apartheid, and a mock graveyard with 85 wooden crosses was set up in front of the student union to condemn U.S. policies in Central America. But Heyer estimated that there are fewer than 100 political activists among the 10,000 students. Other students derisively dub them "granolas" and mock their attempts to replay the radicalism of two decades ago.

"It's so homogenous here," said Heyer. She complained that more than 1,000 students had attended a memorial service for the shuttle astronauts but few joined rallies against violence in Central America or apartheid in South Africa. "I am glad it happened in a brutal, ugly way," Heyer said of the Challenger explosion. The seven astronauts were there by choice, she said, but "there are so many people who are victims."

In the language of the '60s, this generation of students might be called apathetic. But they are quick to defend their pursuit of success and their attention to money. Jim Griffith, a 21-year-old junior and business manager of the student government, said he sees many greedy people among his peers, but "I'm trying to say we're not bad."

"I've read all these things about the '60s being an 'us' generation," Griffith said. "I'm not sure caring for yourself makes you selfish. There is a lot to be scared about."NEXT: Marketing to young people