The Vietnamese, a recent survey says, are assimilating into the main-stream of Amercian life at an astonishing rate.In the Washington area, that comes as no surprise.

Yes, We see scattered and colorful commercial pockets of vietnamese presence in the form of groceries and boutiques selling Eastern wares. But a more significant testimonial is the increasing prominence of Vietnamese in arenas in which we customarily find immigrant influence only after two or three generations: in the teaching profession, in medicine, in the church and in non-ethnic business enterprise.

What accounts for this rapid assimilation?

It is true that many Vietnamese were professionals in their homeland. But so were many Hungarians, Cubans and even refugees from Russia's pograms. Furthermore, an equally large number of Vietnamese immigrants did not possess high status at home. Why have they risen so quickly?

While I am certain that sociologists can offer many explanations, I suggest the Vietnamese have had access to one social and economic ladder that earlier immigrants did not have: the community college system.

I use as a case in point the Northern Virginia Community College, which has helped literally thousands of Vietnamese in the last six years alone. As an instructor at NOVA, I have witnessed innumerable success stories:

S- Nguyen, in 1973, was trying desperately to maintain some sort of grasp on a rapidly disintegrating life; in 1977, he was an engineering student at NOVA, possessed of enough confidence to argue, and win, a classroom debate on the merits of Faulkner over Hemingway.

H- Dinh, at age 60, once a bureaucrat in Saigon, is now an A student writing English themes along with other freshmen. His dream: to use his fiscal abilities in the U.S. government.

T- Tran was formerly a well-known novelist in Vietnam. When he arrived in the United States, he worked as a janitor so he could earn his tuition. In a short time, he left behind his mops and brooms and became a coordinator of Vietnamese student concerns in the Fairfax County public-school system. At NOVA, he is studying art, with a goal of becoming a commercial artist.

The community college, with its strong affirmative-action policies, welcomes a Vietnamese despite his limited English, his limited money, his fears of a somewhat alien and intimidating culture. For about $8.50 per credit hour, a Vietnameses can virtually walk in and immediately obtain instruction in elementary English usage. After that, he can quickly move onto other studies, vocationally, professionally or academically oriented. That enables him, often after only a few months, to participate in the American dream.

He may be washing dishes while he studies at the community college, but usually he can get increasingly better paying and more satisfying work because the community college has given him an entree our immigrant ancestors could never even have hoped for.

Of course, earlier immigrants had dreams of success as well. But the sweatshop or the railroad yard did not offer them the possibility for developing the self-esteem that is necessary to translate dream into reality.

My own immigrant father fled Mussolini's Italy to build a new life, and succeeded beyond even his own expectations. Yet he never felt as though he had become one of us, real American. Until the end of his life he remained embarrassed by his lack of an American education. In 1939, there was nothing comparable to the community college system, and a poor, frightened Italian boy who spoke little English couldn't even hope to enter the state university.

That is the role the community college now plays for the Vietnamese. It gives them an opportunity to mix quickly with other Americans of every intellectual and social level, of every race, and to know in doing so that they are really welcome and well regarded.