Mexico City offers academic, cultural rewards for alumna on Fulbright journey

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Kaelne Koorn recently finished a nine-month residence in Mexico City on a Fulbright fellowship to study the Asian marketplace in the city’s colonial Plaza Mayor. Her research endeavor proved to represent only a fraction of her learning experience.

The Virginia Commonwealth University alumna — one of a university-record 11 Fulbright scholars selected to study overseas this year — found that her immersion in Mexican society and culture was a source of perpetual discovery and surprise. She developed friendships, traveled throughout the country and experienced vibrant Mexico City life on a day-to-day street level, from the delicious food and overwhelming rush hour crush of pedestrians and vehicles to the spirited pop-up demonstrations and protests that seemed to materialize from thin air.

“It’s such a valuable experience to live in another culture for a while,” Koorn said. “I’ve learned so much from being here.”

Koorn’s academic interest in Mexico was shaped during her years as an undergraduate student in the VCU School of the Arts, starting with a pre-Columbian art history class that sparked a particular affinity for Latin American art and culture. Because she also had a strong interest in Chinese art, she became drawn to the period in the 18th and 19th centuries when an Asian marketplace thrived in the heart of Mexico City. Mexican artists eventually adopted elements of the popular Asian artworks, leading to the development of a unique and multicultural Mexican artistic style.

“I’ve always been interested in the points of contact of different cultures,” Koorn said.

Koorn, who graduated from VCU in 2015 majoring in photography and art history, applied for a Fulbright to study this blending of cultures more closely. During her time in Mexico City, Koorn pored through libraries and museum collections and talked with scholars, who were unfailingly open and generous with their time. Koorn said she was surprised by the amount of existing research into her topic. Digging into all of it kept her busy and fascinated.

The experience also made her a better and more confident academic investigator.

“I’d never been to archives before,” she said. “I’d never talked to museum directors before. I’ve made a lot of contacts in Mexico, and I’ve learned a lot about how to conduct research.”

Koorn appreciates the independence the Fulbright program allows its grant recipients. Instead of having to report extensively on her progress, Koorn enjoyed considerable latitude to see where her research took her and then to follow its lead.

“There was a lot more freedom than I expected,” she said. 

Koorn is working on a paper based on her research that she hopes publish in an academic journal. That will not be the end of her exploration of Mexican art. During her Fulbright tenure, she collected untold sources of information and images to fuel not only her current research but to inspire and guide future projects. Her time in Mexico City has provided her with a more intricate understanding of Mexico and the cultural and societal context for the work of the country’s artists and artisans.

Koorn will use her Fulbright experience as a springboard to graduate school. She starts a master’s program in art history in the fall at the University of Sevilla in Spain, focusing on the study of colonial Latin American art.

“It’s been fantastic,” Koorn said. “I’ve had a great experience.”


Koorn worked with the National Scholarship Office at VCU to apply for the Fulbright Student Scholarship. The office provides support for VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact the office at or 804-828-6868.