By Juleyka Lantigua-Williams McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT) This is National Nontraditional Student Week, which is celebrated the first week in November to recognize millions of students who do not fit the standard college student mold. In fact, 75 percent of college students today are nontraditional, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The official definition of nontraditional students starts with adults older than 25, and those returning to school while working, raising children or serving in the military. I've spent the last four years working with this unique population as an English professor at a community college. These students represent the economic and social realities of our country today. Many of them overcame great odds to be in college. Often, they're the first to go to college in their entire family. And every day, they make sacrifices just to get to class _ after dropping children off at school, or clocking out of a second shift or returning from weekend training at a military base. They bring such a high level of commitment to their education that they earn the respect and admiration of younger students whose biggest challenge can sometimes be setting the alarm for class. They also come into the classroom with a deep reserve of experiences, knowledge and skills that enable them to put thought to action and find practical applications for what we're learning in ways that surprise and enrich our community of learners. Unlike the stereotypical college student, one at a private four-year college enjoying an intellectual vacation from the real world courtesy of mom and dad, nontraditional students are neck-deep under the folds of the real world. They get home to help with homework before sitting down to write papers and complete research assignments. They miss class when spouses and parents are sick, but drag themselves in even with fractured bones. They photocopy course materials from library reference copies because textbooks are expensive and utility bills can't be paid with financial aid. Because they tend to have such full and complicated lives, 49 percent are enrolled part time, 38 percent work full time, and 27 percent have dependents. After college, they go into careers that constitute the backbone of our society _ in civil service, in education, in health care, in police work, in hospitality and personnel management. They emerge as eager entrepreneurs who set up small businesses in their very own neighborhoods, thereby multiplying the economic impact of their degrees. Today's nontraditional students are breaking the cycle of poverty and opening the doors to opportunity for generations to come. They deserve our respect and gratitude.