University of Pennsylvania graduate student Mackenzie Fierceton won the praise and approval of her school in November 2020 when she was one of 32 scholars to win the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford.
“Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity,” university president Amy Gutmann said of Fierceton. “As a first-generation [to go to college] low-income student and a former foster youth, Mackenzie is passionate about championing young people [and] dedicating herself to a life of public service.”
Months later, however, Fierceton would lose her scholarship after she was accused of being “blatantly dishonest” about her childhood in both her Rhodes Scholarship and University of Pennsylvania applications, the New York Post reported.
The full story of Fierceton’s alleged deception was reported at The Chronicle of Higher Education, which noted that she was asked to meet with UPenn’s deputy provost Beth Winkelstein over Zoom in the fall of 2020. Winkelstein reportedly asked numerous questions, including “Who were her parents? Did her mother go to college? Was she given a car? Who was Darren? Would medical records show she had broken ribs? What about injuries to her face?”
The questions were based on Fierceton’s inspiring story of being the first person in her family to go to college, of growing up in a low-income household, and even spending time in the foster-care system. Her capstone thesis was about foster kids often ending up in prison, the Chronicle reported.
At the time Fierceton won the scholarship, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about her, which led to an anonymous email questioning her story. From the Chronicle:
In reality, the email said, Fierceton had grown up in an affluent suburb of St. Louis with her mother, a radiologist, and had attended private schools. A similar email, sent to the Rhodes Trust, accused her of being “blatantly dishonest in the representation of her childhood” and included photos from her high-school yearbook of Fierceton skydiving, riding a horse, and whitewater rafting. The anonymous email led to the meeting with the deputy provost and would prompt two investigations, one by Rhodes and one by the university, that would result in further accusations of deception. Much of that scrutiny focused on an essay in Fierceton’s undergraduate application that details alleged abuse so severe that it landed her in a pediatric intensive-care unit.
It is no secret that stories of trauma help students win prestigious scholarships, which may lead some to at least stretch the truth about their lives in an attempt to gain favor.
UPenn started heavily investigating Fierceton’s story, including speaking to people from her hometown. Some professors, who bought Fierceton’s story without any verification, claimed the university was mistreating a young woman with trauma.
It turns out that Fierceton attended a $30,000-a-year private high school in the St. Louis suburbs in an affluent suburb with her mother, the director of breast imaging and mammography at a nearby hospital.
Fierceton also claimed that on September 22, 2014, her mother pushed her down the stairs during an argument and struck her in the face multiple times. Fierceton claimed she drove herself to school, then collapsed in front of a teacher and was taken to a hospital. Fierceton described in her scholarship essay that an event left her in a hospital bed with a feeding tube in her mouth and “facial features so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart,” adding that her “blonde hair is caked with dried blood.” She claimed an “army of nurses” had to help her to the bathroom and that she had “braces stabilizing most of my body.” She didn’t identify the event, but claimed her mother was the assailant.
Fierceton’s mother claimed that she had an excellent relationship with her daughter, but that the younger girl had anxiety. Her mother claimed that Fierceton asked her for help getting gum out of her hair while they were on the stairs and that she jerked her head back and stumbled down a few steps before sitting down.
Fierceton did go to the hospital at that time, and her mother was arrested on charges of child abuse, but those charges were dropped after the assistant prosecuting attorney had serious doubts about the honesty of the allegations.
At the meeting with UPenn’s Winkelstein, Fierceton was asked about people she identified in her personal essay. Her essay began with a claim that she entered foster care and named several people she identifies as other foster kids.
“Now, Chandra is institutionalized for the seventh time,” she wrote. “Darren and Will are incarcerated. Casey is terminally ill.”
Winkelstein asked who these people were but Fierceton said she was not “comfortable” answering.
Winkelstein later informed the Rhodes committee about the allegations, including news that Fierceton was not the first person in her family to graduate from her college. Her grandfather was a college graduate.
Rhodes conducted its own investigation and determined that Fierceton “created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself,” adding that her “misrepresentations also served her interests as an applicant for competitive programs.”
Fierceton appears to have gotten away with defining herself as a first-generation college graduate because UPenn includes those whose family members never attended “an elite institution,” a vague description that allows a student to claim they are a first-generation college graduate if a family member never attended an Ivy League institution.
The Rhodes investigation also reviewed medical records that it said did not back up the claims in her essay. The investigation report found no references in Fierceton’s medical records about “dried blood, distorted facial features, or cessation of breathing.”
Neither UPenn nor Rhodes could determine if Fierceton’s mother actually abused her.
Both investigations determined Fierceton was not entirely hones in her essay, and her Rhodes scholarship was revoked.
The Chronicle was able to confirm some portions of Fierceton’s story, including that she was in the hospital for three weeks at one point as a teenager and that she did spend time with a foster family. Her descriptions of her time in the hospital differ from what she claimed in her essay. She had no broken bones and was only in a neck brace early on in her hospitalization, but records say her neck had a “normal range of motion.” Her feeding tube was also listed as necessary for “behavioral” reasons, not medical reasons.
Fierceton has since filed a lawsuit against UPenn, claiming the school conducted a “sham investigation.” She has also insisted her essay is more poetic, than journalistic.
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