University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Bridging Gown and Town

Gail Shampnois
Photograph by Sally McCay


Bridging Gown and Town

The person Gail Shampnois ’81 perhaps needed most when she arrived at UVM in the fall of 1977 would look a good deal like the person Shampnois, the university’s director of the Office of Student and Community Relations, has become across twenty-five years on the UVM staff.

Not accepted to UVM until late summer, Shampnois and her then-boyfriend/now-husband Tom Shampnois ’82 couldn’t get housing and lived out of their car for the first week of college. They eventually found a ramshackle apartment on North Street surrounded by noise and crime. Bad to worse, an arsonist would later torch a section of their building.

“I think a lot of my compassion and empathy towards students was having that initial fear,” says Shampnois. Years later, inspired by the activist spirit of change in the neighborhood, Gail and Tom Shampnois bought a house not far away in the city’s Old North End.

Fast forward to October 24, 2016. Shampnois is at City Hall receiving the Peter Clavelle Award from Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger for her “advancement of social equity, environmental stewardship, quality education, economic growth and vitality in Burlington.” She is specifically praised for Spring Move Out, an event where students bring clothing, furniture, and others items to a community recycling and swap event; Off-Campus Living Workshops for students; and the Community Coalition, a monthly meeting between students, neighbors, landlords, city officials, and UVM and Champlain College officials to discuss and take action on neighborhood concerns.

Programs like these and others started by OSCR have transformed town-gown relations, and in the process, reduced student off-campus violations for three years in a row.

“I think that we have the moral imperative and the responsibility to be a good neighbor,” says Shampnois. “The goal of this office is to provide coaching, skill building, resources and support to help them be that good neighbor. When a neighbor says, ‘Wow, those students really cared about us,’ that’s monumental.”

Shampnois admits to having little idea what she was getting into when she started as UVM’s community liaison decades ago. She found herself in the middle of arguments between students and neighbors with little support. “When I realized early on that conflict was going to be my world, I knew that our role couldn’t be one of enforcement, so I started focusing on building relationships between the city, students and residents,” she says.

Shampnois established dialogue at Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, created by then-mayor Bernie Sanders in response to landlords flipping houses, converting them to apartments to serve the student market. “It was intense at first, because UVM was often brought up at these meetings for student behavior,” says Shampnois. “Once we started communicating our plans, people appreciated it, and I thought we had finally made some progress.”

Perhaps the best example of a unified effort between Shampnois’ office, the city, and local residents is the Isham Street Gardening and Other Optimistic Doings (ISGOOD) project. Formed in 2009, the grassroots neighborhood organization has held group gardening events, potlucks, socials, and other cleanup projects to improve the appearance of the street and strengthen the relationships of the people living on it. In the process, something else happened: noise complaints went significantly down along with littering, burglaries and vandalism. Based on this success, Mayor Miro Weinberger is using this work as a model for the city's neighborhood stabilization efforts.

“Since our first block party in 2010, the culture of the street has evolved,” says Isham Street resident and ISGOOD co-founder Phil Hammerslough. “You can see the change. It’s palpable. Students say hello to each other, they say hello to us. We talk. There’s sharing going on.”

Shampnois’s own undergraduate years were strongly influenced by a community service component of an environmental studies class that led her to a year of working with children to produce the Vermont Children’s Magazine.

“It was an unbelievable experience that made me a lifelong believer in the power of community service and civic involvement,” she says. “My whole undergraduate experience came to life because I got invested, involved, and connected in the community.”

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