As high-tech gear encroaches on daily life, AOL Instant Messenger jargon litters conversation, and the world expands its cyber-web, it can be easy to forget those who were left in the dust of the “digital age.”

Gateway Community College, on the other hand, has not.

Despite budget problems and a lost sponsor, Gateway is continuing to hold its free class, “Computer Literacy for Advancing Special Populations” at its Long Wharf campus. The three-hour classes run in sessions of eight weeks and although the classes are open to everyone, they draw mostly senior citizen women who are re-entering the workplace.

“Kids coming out of high school have computer literacy programs, but older people were not educated in that,” said Evelyn Cernadas, Gateway’s director of public information and marketing. “What you and I would take for granted — like e-mail, the net — older people are afraid of it.”

The telephone company that sponsored the program, SBC SNET, granted Gateway $68,000 — a critical sum to initiate the program but only enough to support it for 18 months. Since then, Gateway has been funding the program, while still searching for another sponsor.

Cernadas said sponsorship concerns are also coupled with state budget problems. She said that although all Connecticut community colleges are currently underfunded, Gateway is in particular need because it has the highest growing enrollment and an expansion project underway.

“The effect is a testament to a dedication to the community because we’re not getting money from anywhere,” she said.

Jean Wihbey, Gateway’s associate dean of learning, said community service is an integral part of the college’s focus and despite budget limitations, community classes will still continue.

“It won’t be cut out because there are a lot of community members who will offer their services at no cost, so we will return it to the community at no cost,” Wihbey said. “Our community part of our mission is the highest part of who we are.”

Two teachers are in charge of the class, along with up to 11 former students who have returned to volunteer. The teachers assume no prior computer knowledge and begin the first class by instructing how to turn on the computer. Later lessons aim to increase familiarity with the keyboard, e-mail, the Internet, file-management, and word-processing.

“It’s been very successful,” said Kerin Kelsey, an English professor at Gateway and a program coordinator.

The class has taught computer skills to nearly 2,500 New Haven residents since it started in January 2000.

Kelsey said people sign up for the class for several reasons. Some local social agencies, like the Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven and Columbus House Shelter, send their clients to the program. Some people who participate in the program seek computer literacy because they are frustrated with insufficient pensions. Kelsey said these people recognize they must update their skills to return to the job market.

Kelsey was instrumental in obtaining the original SBC SNET grant that started the program, and now she continues to write more grant proposals to sustain it. Because the college is small, she said, she and the other program coordinators and teachers must play many different roles, and for little compensation.

“The pay is very little, but [we] are very dedicated,” she said.

Kelsey said she hopes the program will continue, as she enjoys seeing seniors become better acquainted with the modern world of computers.

“I get a lot of calls from women in stress,” Kelsey said. “I know [the program has] helped a lot. It’s a good feeling.”