Sarah Seelye: An unexpected path to studying Detroit’s population loss

By Susan Rosegrant
July 2013

Sarah Seelye is the winner of the 2013-2014 PSC Alumni Graduate Student Support Fund.

Detroit Population Density Change, 2000 to 2010

Click image to view interactive graphic. (Courtesy of ISR Population Studies Center)


Sarah Seelye (Photo by Eva Menezes)

Sarah Seelye

As a 15 year old, Sarah Seelye, now a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, was so serious about taekwondo, the Korean martial art form, that she decided to learn the language behind it.

Korean was an oddity in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, but Seelye—an unusually focused and determined teenager—found a Korean dentistry professor at the University of Louisville and convinced him to be her tutor. She continued her dogged pursuit of the language at Indiana University: She hung out with Koreans, double majored in Korean and sociology, and managed three trips to South Korea, teaching English at the same time that she honed her skills.

Seelye’s grasp of Korean got better and better, and after graduating in the spring of 2001 she began looking for jobs in the United States as a Korean language translator. She applied to the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the FBI. Somewhat to her surprise, she got a conditional offer from the CIA to be an interpreter.

Then came September 11. “The war was starting in Iraq and I wasn’t really happy with where things were going,” Seelye remembers.  “I decided I didn’t want to go down that path.” She retracted her application, took out her sociology degree, and began sifting through ads for social workers.

Seelye found a job in southern Indiana talking to first-time mothers about their pregnancies and babies, then worked with truant teenagers and their parents in Louisville, and finally began her master’s degree in social work at the University of Louisville. There, working as a research assistant for a professor studying the chronically homeless, she had an epiphany: Being a social worker had never felt right; she wanted to be a researcher.

After graduating and spending two years in Louisville as a supportive housing project evaluator, assessing efforts to house the long-term homeless, Seelye was accepted into the University of Michigan’s joint social work/sociology doctoral program. But her direction was still in flux. After digging into neighborhood mobility work and taking a compelling demography course, Seelye switched her academic focus from homelessness and supportive housing to demography—in particular, residential mobility, neighborhood change, and urban morphology, the study of how cities form and change.

Recently, Seelye won a grant from the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research. The money from the Alumni Graduate Student Support Fund is helping to cover costs associated with conducting, transcribing, and analyzing interviews with current and former residents of Detroit.

Like a number of other researchers, Seelye is trying to learn more about Detroit’s extraordinary population loss; the city, which recently declared bankruptcy, is down more than one million residents in the last 60 years, and lost about 25 percent of its population just between 2000 and 2010.

But where most researchers study the people who have moved away, Seelye wants to understand why some people stay behind. Are they just unable to leave? Or are some residents still drawn to the city and their lives there, despite Detroit’s well documented problems?

Photo courtesy of Sarah Seelye

Photo courtesy of Sarah Seelye

To get answers, Seelye is interviewing about 20 residents of a neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side—one of the city’s most depopulated. (She defines most depopulated as any neighborhood that’s lost 30 percent of its population each decade from 1980 to 2010.) Seelye also plans to interview a similar number of residents who have left that same neighborhood. She expects to have completed her analysis by the end of the year. The research may become part of her dissertation.

Meanwhile, Seelye has replaced taekwondo with biking and backpacking. She doesn’t see any uses for her Korean skills in the near future, but she does hope to return to teaching—this time at the university level. “I’ve had a very intricate last ten years,” Seelye says with a small smile. “It’s been a winding road.”


Sarah Seelye: An unexpected path to studying Detroit’s population loss