It was a brief and initially innocent encounter when Anne Metoyer and her boyfriend, Rodney Arzuaga, met two men on a dark street here last summer. The men asked for cigarettes.

But as the couple walked away, one of the strangers, a 17-year-old street-gang member, pulled a pistol and fired several shots at them. A bullet nicked Metoyer's lung, another shattered her right forearm. Arzuaga was hit three times in the back; his wounds were fatal.

The murder of her boyfriend and her own painful recovery inspired in Metoyer a new resolve: first to help police find the killer, and then to take hold of her life, to "get on the ball," she said.

Today, Anne Metoyer is 19, works two jobs, studies business administration at Harry S. Truman College here and is active in student government. She is hopeful about life's promise and satisfied with the world in which she finds herself. Despite her victimization, she is convinced that she controls her future.

"I've learned not to let anything stand in my way," she said.

From Truman's inner-city classrooms emerge many similar stories of determination born in struggle and an almost defiant conviction that life can be made better. Students here and at two other area community colleges -- suburban College of DuPage and rural Kishwaukee College -- reflect the same pragmatism, independence and optimism voiced in interviews this month by their peers in very different places and circumstances.

As with vocational students in Texas and university students in New Hampshire, the confident reach of Metoyer and her classmates does not extend beyond the boundaries of their own lives. Crime, teen-age pregnancy, war or poverty in their foreign homelands and the other obstacles they overcame to enroll at Truman are theirs to rise above, not to combat on society's behalf.

"A lot of us think of the '60s and '70s as some sort of slip-up. This generation is more practical," said John Hoffman, 20, editor of the student newspaper at the College of DuPage outside Chicago. "If we join the Peace Corps, we may want to help, but we also want to help our careers. I think in the long run, we'll accomplish more . . . . If we show enough self-interest, we will accomplish a lot."

In interviews, these students said they supported limited social services for the poorest Americans, but said they believed more strongly in hard work, and they condemned acquaintances who collect public aid rather than find jobs. "As long as it's there, they're going to take it," said Roberta Arjes, 25, who is a secretarial student at Kishwaukee nine years after becoming pregnant and dropping out of high school. "I found a way for myself."

Such individualism has made this numerically smaller generation less cohesive and more easily overlooked than the noisy, socially conscious baby-boomers who preceded them. While they are sporadic voters, they are drawn to President Reagan as a leader who fosters and embodies their personal drive.

For them, community college is a gateway to upward mobility, a path not to wider intellectual horizons but to explicit careers as computer programmers, electronics technicians, travel agents and teachers.

Like many of her classmates, Metoyer is the first in her family to go to college. After the shooting, she buckled down to her courses at Truman, working in an administrative office at school and at a law firm to augment her student aid. She also scoured police mug-shot files, identifying a suspect who was later convicted of murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

"I could have said, 'I got shot,' and left it at that," Metoyer said. "But I figured it was the only thing I could do. I couldn't turn the clock back, I couldn't bring back Rodney. But I could do this."

Metoyer is the only child of Mary Metoyer, who saved carefully to send her daughter to Good Counsel, a Catholic girls school where the Felician sisters stress self-discipline and self-reliance. "I want her to get a good education, and, ultimately, to marry and raise a family," Mary Metoyer said. "I think that's what a mother normally wants for her chldren."

Anne's own goal is to earn enough to help her mother and save for her own old age, something her mother has been unable to do. "She has nothing to look forward to," Anne said.

Of her own future, she added: "I'm going to succeed." Looking to the Beat and the Farm

Jacqueline Mariani, 23, is equally determined. After her mother was murdered here two years ago, Mariani sent her 7-year-old son to live with relatives in Puerto Rico so she could study to become a policewoman. She pushes herself, she said, by imagining the pride of her Puerto Rican-born mother, who so loved her adopted country that she named her daughter after President Kennedy's wife.

At Kishwaukee College, 60 miles from the city amid soybean and corn fields, 20-year-old agriculture student Ellen Roos exudes the same can-do spirit, rooted not in adversity but in the common-sense, take-care-of-your-own ethos of rural middle America. As with Metoyer and Mariani -- and in contrast to the rebellious youth of the 60s -- it is also rooted in respect for her family.

Roos is bent on keeping her parents' farm in the family and buying a farm of her own some day. Despite the farm-economy crisis, she sees no need of government aid to preserve her way of life. "I may have blinders on," Roos said, "but if my friends need me, I'm there. It's like the code farmers go by. You help."

Roos lives half an hour from school with her parents, two brothers and sister in a 75-year-old farmhouse on their 265-acre farm. They raise dairy cattle and sheep on land given by her great-grandmother to her grandmother as a wedding gift. In her spare time, between courses in subjects such as farm management and animal nutrtion, she helps on the farm -- in the kitchen or baling hay.

"I feel good when I get a good day's work in, when I work up a sweat," she said.

She says her farmer father and her mother, who works in a nursing home, reared their children in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, teaching each to "believe in yourself, don't let your peers pressure you." When they were little, the children came home from school, finished their homework and were in bed by 8 p.m. The family still eats a fancy Sunday dinner around the table.

Their farm, in better financial shape than many of its neighbors, eventually will be run by her oldest brother, and Roos says she will "do everything I have to" to keep the farm in the family. She expects to teach high school or work for the cooperative extension, a rural service that dispenses crop advice, organizes 4-H clubs and otherwise helps farmers.

Her dream is to buy a farm and raise her children as her parents raised her. "I couldn't think of another place I'd like to live," she said. When she visits even a small town, the noise keeps her awake. 'We're More Practical'

She worries about a possible accident at the nuclear power plant seven miles from her home, but doesn't worry about the future of the country she unabashedly loves: "I don't see how we could be anything but strong," she said of her generation. "We're more practical" than young people in the '60s and '70s were. "We look at it like we have problems to solve."

"All the sit-ins and protesting, they had a real irresponsible attitude towards life," said Jenny Benson, a Kishwaukee student and a member of Future Farmers of America. "Changing the world can start at home."

"They took a stand against everything," said Robert Hemmelgarn, 20, an electronic technician student at the College of DuPage. "Now, we're on the brink of nuclear war, then it was just Vietnam."

Asked to assess the Vietnam era, a group of Truman students began to debate who had been president at the height of the war, and concluded that it must have been the man for whom their school was named. Their knowledge of history begins with the war's end, and, like their knowledge of current events, it is impressionistic, formed primarily by television images. What they know best is themselves.

Margaret Anne McNulty, 21, a performing arts student at the College of DuPage, is in some ways a consummate example of her era. "They've identified us as the 'me' generation, and I don't think of it as derogatory," she said, describing herself without hesitation as "selfish."

Last year, nearing the end of her junior year as a political science major at the University of Illinois, McNulty dropped plans for law school to follow her dream to sing and act. Despite her parents' initial objections, she remains close to her father, a geologist, and her mother, a hospice administrator, and lives with them while she goes to school.

Abandoning the prospect of a high-paying career seems to run counter to her peers' unself-conscious pursuit of success. But McNulty was pursuing just that. "I'm going to go out there and do what I want to do," she said. "I will do whatever I have to do" to be happy. Nonetheless, she would like to appear in movies and be famous.

At Truman, Jacqueline Mariani aspires to a more modest $20,000 a year income -- still more than her mother earned working in a Chicago manufacturing plant.

Mariani's mother never learned to speak English and wanted her daughter to go to school. When Jacqueline earned her high-school degree equivalency, her mother cried. "She was so happy for me, so proud of me," said Mariani. "She's dead, but I still want to make her proud."

Her parents separated when she was 13, she said, and her father returned to Puerto Rico. Although he lost a leg in Vietnam, he takes care of Mariani's son because he is also determined that his daughter stay in school and become a police officer.

She has passed the qualifying test with the Chicago Police Department and believes, with the confidence characteristic of her generation, that she will be selected.

"That's what all of us have here, a dream," she said, gesturing to her classmates at Truman. "With enough drive, I think you can do it."