In an unprecedented exchange program, 56 Soviet students have spent the past three weeks at Middlebury College studying English and computers in preparation for a year at 26 U.S. colleges and universities.

The program marks the first time Soviet students will study at U.S. universities unaccompanied by adult chaperones, said Raymond Benson, director of the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchanges.Some students headed Saturday for the Eastern schools, most of them small liberal arts colleges.

"I have never been so far away from my family," said a homesick Nino Betlemidze, a 22-year-old female student from Soviet Georgia who will attend Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

U.S. students will study in the Soviet Union next year, while another group of Soviet students will attend U.S. universities, Benson said.

"It is a mark of a new normalcy in our relations," he said.

Soviet education officials selected their brightest students this year, but some weren't as fluent in English as U.S. officials expected. Without a strong command of the language, the first few months could be difficult for the students and host schools, he said.

"We thought they would be awfully damn good," he said. "But we'll work through it this year because the students are so bloody motivated."

In addition to practicing English, Betlemidze and the others have been learning to use personal computers so they can write their first term papers.

Another adjustment problem is the diversity of course offerings at U.S. schools, according to Benson.

"They look at our catalogs and they go berserk," he said. "The wealth in our catalogs is very hard for them to grapple with."

"Women's studies?" said a laughing Betlemidze, who studies the physics of metals at her home school, Georgia Polytechnic Institute.

The Soviets, who are earning a year's credit for transfer to their home schools, must take half their courses in their major and the rest outside of it.

Mikhail Chkhenkeli, a 20-year-old math major focusing on topology, plans to study Spanish, photo processing, logic - and tennis - when he starts at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa.

His major at Georgia State University in the southern Soviet republic, the study of the properties of geometric figures that remain unchanged even under distortion, points to the specificity of Soviet study and the problem it poses for fitting the students into U.S. schools.

"They specialize far earlier than our undergraduates," Benson said, who said he changed several college assignments for students who felt a school's course list would not adequately meet the requirements of their major.

Other schools in the program are Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.; Bates College in Lewiston, Maine; Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.; Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.; Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio; Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

One condition of the exchange was that at least one-third of the Soviet students be women, Benson said. "We told them there would be no exchange without them," he said, adding that few women have been on previous student exchanges.

The U.S. organizers first thought Soviet reluctance to send women was due to fear they would not return home. However, Benson said it's more likely because of sexism.

Benson, who recently served as a counselor on educational exchanges to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hopes the educational exchange will create a generation that knows life intimately in both superpowers.

"By the next century, a couple of thousand people who really know that other country can say, `I know what they mean, I've been there,' " Benson said.