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How this 29-year-old went from 'broke college student' to pro sand castle builder

Janel Hawkins spends up to eight hours on the beach daily, constructing elaborate structures — then tearing them down.

Janel Hawkins spends hours building intricate structures — and destroys them not long after. Such is the life of a professional sand castle builder.

As the owner of Sand Castle University, she spends six to eight nearly every day on the sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama, shaping and carving wet sand into intricate forms.

Some days, she builds intricate architectural structures like Victorian houses or replicas of famous buildings. Other days, she sculpts creatures like alligators, octopi and mermaids.

@sand_castle_university via Instagram

Usually, by the next tide, they’re gone. For Hawkins, the sculptures’ temporariness is part of their appeal.

“If my art lasted forever, then it wouldn’t be as cool, and everyone got to see it; it wouldn’t be as cool,” she says.

Even if the sand castles don’t last longer than a few hours in real life, they’re preserved on Hawkins’ social channels. She documents the making of a sand castle on Instagram and TikTok, showcasing creativity and apt engineering.

Hawkins didn’t wake up dreaming about building sand castles. Instead, she found out about the job by chance while a college freshman double majoring in business and psychology at Waldorf University.

“I was a broke college kid, and I was just scrolling on Craigslist. This ad said, ‘Now hiring professionals and sculptors. No experience necessary,’” she says. “ I just thought that that was the craziest thing ever. I was like, ‘I have to find out what this is.’ The rest is kind of history.”

"Spongebob" sand castles.
"Spongebob" sand castles.@sand_castle_university via Instagram

Her mentor, Rick Mungeam, helped her refine her craft. No one sand sculptor has the same toolbox collection, Hawkins says.

“Some have a thousand tools; some have three. It just depends on who you are, who you mentored under, and what you like,” she says.

She uses tools meant for ceramics and pottery, like knives and ribbon cutters; masonry tools; and special techniques like “dribbling,” in which she uses a watery sand mix to create a textured design.

By the end of her junior year, she felt confidant enough to bet on a house of sand.

“By the end of my junior year, I kind of looked at what my life (could be like) with my degree and decided that I wanted to go try to make my own business and do my own thing,” she says.

At first, her parents were hesitant when she told them of her plans to work with sand. They didn’t fully grasp the concept of sand sculpting, which Hawkins admits is understandable: “No one really does.”

Still, she they were ultimately supportive. 

“I have always been a free spirit and just kind of, like, had weird things that I randomly wanted to do,” she explains. “They helped me out immensely throughout the first few years when I needed help running the business.”

Hawkins and a sand shark.
Hawkins and a sand shark.@sand_castle_university via Instagram

Today, she employs five other instructors and a full-time assistant and creates custom sculptures for proposals, weddings, corporate logos, festivals, marketing events and more.

“It’s never the same, and I love that I don’t get bored,” she says.

Hawkins’ work delights and fascinates beachgoers and social media scrollers alike. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t stop her to take a photograph. Sometimes, people ask her for direction on how to build their own.

While Sand Castle University offers classes, Hawkins is generous about sharing tips with

“However much water you think you need, you need at least three times that amount. There’s actually never any such thing as too much water,” she notes. “And the next thing is that where you’re at on the beach absolutely matters. A lot of people want to build where the sand is already wet. It’s actually terrible sand.”

Hawkins says  sand at the edge of the beach, where we often tend to see beachgoers construct their castles, is gritty, mixed with marbles and shells that don’t absorb or hold water.

“The finer, the fuzzier, the fluffier the sand, the more water will absorb and hold and the easier it will be to sculpt. It’s better to use the fluffier sand further away from the water and (bring) the water to the good sand than it is to use the sand that’s already wet,” she says.

Hawkins also emphasizes the importance of being mindful of beaches and the environment. She never departs from the beach without making sure she hasn’t left anything behind and requires her team to wear sunblock.

During turtle season, March through October, Hawkins deliberately smashes her constructions. 

Sand Castle University
Hawkins and her team.Courtesy Sand Castle University

“Our sculptures are so large and so compacted that they can potentially be a hazard for moms nesting or baby hatching turtles,” she explains. “Wwe really try to lead the way and be an example since we are the only professional company in town. If we can smash the sculptures that took us eight hours, then you can smash your sand castle and help the cause. We’re really really environmentally conscious and want to kind of promote that.”

Sand Castle University
Courtesy Sand Castle University

In an email to touched on the impact that Hawkins and her team have had on the state’s local beaches.

“Janel and her team at Sand Castle University provide a very unique and special experience to visitors to Alabama’s Beaches,” their statement reads. “Janel has built quite a following on social media with her amazing creations — introducing not only her art to people around the country and the world but also introducing our two great little beach towns to those people as well.”

For those inspired by her story, Hawkins says to think about what beautiful thing you can build.

“Everything is a business. If you think it’s cool someone else thinks it’s cool,” she says. “If you’re drawn to it, you’re not the only one.