‘Rhodes Scholar’ claimed she grew up poor and abused — then her story started to unravel


In November 2020, when University of Pennsylvania graduate pupil Mackenzie Fierceton gained the celebrated and extremely aggressive Rhodes scholarship to research at Oxford — certainly one of simply 32 students chosen from a pool of two,300 candidates — she was praised by the Ivy League faculty’s president in a publication.

“Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious
opportunity,” declared President Amy Gutmann of the 23-year-old from suburban St. Louis. “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.”

But a number of months later, Fierceton had misplaced her prestigious scholarship and was preventing towards accusations that she had been “blatantly dishonest” about her childhood in her Penn and Rhodes purposes.

Mackenzie Fierceton
Mackenzie Fierceton has misplaced her Rhodes scholarship — and her University of Pennsylvania grasp’s diploma is being held — after an nameless tipster referred to as out alleged inaccuracies in her faculty and scholarship purposes.
NY Post photograph composite

Now, the investigation into her story is being revealed by the Chronicle of High Education — together with the Rhodes committee’s findings that Fierceton “created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself,” utilizing these “misrepresentations” to “serve her interests as an applicant for competitive programs.”

The case additionally exposes the murky underbelly of elite faculties like Penn and their quest to “show that they’re transforming society rather than laundering its inequalities” by accepting “remarkable” candidates with actually tragic backgrounds, in accordance to the Chronicle report.

Multiple faculty consultants informed The Post that the faculty software course of now options extra questions on overcoming obstacles. The 2021-2022 essay prompts from Common App, the group that oversees undergrad purposes for greater than 900 faculties, embody “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.”

Fierceton identified as a first-generation, low-income student, but that was called into question during investigations at Penn and by the Rhodes committee.
Fierceton recognized as a first-generation, low-income pupil, however that was referred to as into query throughout investigations at Penn and by the Rhodes committee.

“There are a lot of pressures out there for applications right now,” Marco Santini, a New York-based faculty schooling advisor, informed The Post. “I always try to tell students not to do the sob story because there is always someone with a sadder story. I tell students that when they submit their application they have to make sure that everything they have said in their personal statement is true … that they have to stand by what they wrote.”

Categorizing herself as a first-generation, low-income pupil with a historical past of horrific abuse — who additionally earned almost straight A’s and was student-body president in highschool — Fierceton actually match the invoice. She was admitted to Penn in 2015 to research political science, then started learning for a scientific grasp’s diploma in social work in 2018.

When Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship was introduced, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the tutorial star in November 2020, noting that she “grew up poor, cycling through the rocky child welfare system [and] bounced from one foster home to the next.”

As Fierceton stated in that story: “I would trade [the Rhodes honor] to have been adopted and have a family.”

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann praised Fierceton when the Rhodes scholarship was announced.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann praised Fierceton when the Rhodes scholarship was introduced.
Jerry Habraken/The News Journal

But after that Nov. 22, 2020, profile ran, an nameless accuser despatched an e mail to Penn and the Rhodes Trust, claiming Fierceton’s story was “blatantly dishonest.” The e mail reportedly alleged that Fierceton grew up in St. Louis, Mo., with her mom, an informed radiologist; that her household was upper-middle class; and that she had attended a elaborate personal highschool and loved such high-end hobbies as horseback using.

The Post couldn’t verify when Penn obtained this e mail. Fierceton gave statements to her hometown paper instantly referencing her attendance on the Whitfield School and thanking a number of academics there who had mentored her in an article published Nov. 24, 2020.  

According to the Chronicle, Fierceton lived with her mom, Carrie Morrison — a divorcée and director of breast imaging and mammography at a neighborhood hospital — “on a [suburban] tree-lined cul-de-sac with large houses and well-groomed lawns.” 

She attended Whitfield, a $30,000-a-year personal faculty in St. Louis, though the Chronicle doesn’t be aware how her tuition was paid for or if she obtained monetary help.

In 2019, Fierceton later testified in a courtroom listening to that, in September 2014, her mom allegedly pushed her down a set of stairs and hit her within the face a number of occasions. The teen stated she was despatched to the hospital the subsequent day after collapsing in school. Fierceton’s mom denied the account and stated the teenager had by accident gone down two or three steps whereas Morrison was serving to take away gum from her hair.

Morrison informed the Chronicle in an announcement: “Mackenzie is deeply loved by her mom and family. Our greatest desire is that Mackenzie chooses to live a happy, healthy, honest, and productive life, using her extraordinary gifts for the highest good.” (The Post was not in a position to attain Morrison, Fierceton or Fierceton’s lawyer, Dion Rassias, for remark.)

After the 2014 incident, Morrison was arrested and charged with two counts of felony little one abuse or neglect and one rely of misdemeanor assault — fees that had been later dropped. An e mail from assistant prosecuting lawyer Michael Hayes, quoted within the Chronicle, stated: “The more I learned [about the case], the less certain I became about what really happened.”

Penn concluded that Fierceton had “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood."
Penn concluded that Fierceton had “constructed a story concerning her childhood.”
Getty Images/iStockphoto

When Penn obtained the nameless accusations about Fierceton, she was reportedly questioned within the fall of 2020 by the college’s deputy provost, Dr. Beth Winkelstein, about every part from her mom’s job and revenue to the trash bag of donated garments she stated she had dragged from one foster residence to one other in her essay software for Rhodes.

According to Winkelstein’s subsequent report, Fierceton was raised in an upper-middle-class family; it additionally notes her mom is a radiologist and that her grandfather had graduated from faculty.

No one disputes that Fierceton spent a yr in official foster care, throughout which she bounced round to completely different houses, and then continued to reside with a foster household. But Winkelstein stated in a letter to the Rhodes committee, despatched every week after her name with Fierceston, that the scholar had “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood” and really useful that the committee conduct its personal probe, which it did in April 2021.

The Rhodes committee questioned Fierceton in regards to the undergraduate essay she wrote when making use of to Penn. In it, she detailed her hospital keep after the alleged incident with her mom, together with claims that her hair was “caked with dried blood” and her facial options had been “so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart.”

Fierceton told the Chronicle of Higher Education: "I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them."
Fierceton informed the Chronicle of Higher Education: “I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them.”

The committee concluded that this was “inconsistent with the hospital records,” including, “Either [Fierceton] has fabricated this abuse by her mother, or her mother has lied about the terrible abuse…”

The committee really useful that Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship be revoked. In response, she withdrew herself from the respect.

“Penn and the Rhodes Trust received credible information that called into question statements Ms. Fierceton made in her applications for admission, financial assistance, and scholarships,” a Penn spokesperson informed The Post. “The Rhodes Trust conducted its own investigation, during which it considered evidence and arguments provided by Ms. Fierceton and her attorney … The Trust then gave Ms. Fierceton the opportunity to withdraw her candidacy if she chose to do so. Ms. Fierceton accepted that offer and withdrew her candidacy.”

The Rhodes Trust didn’t get again to The Post for remark.

Penn then adopted up with its personal formal investigation in August 2021, probing Fierceton’s assertion that she could be the primary in her household to graduate from faculty.

As the Chronicle stories: “If ‘first generation’ means the first in one’s family to attend college — the widely used, common-sense meaning — Fierceton’s answer would be plainly false.”

However, in accordance to the college’s web site, this definition may embody college students who’re the primary of their households to “pursue higher education at an elite institution.” Fierceton’s mom didn’t attend an Ivy League college, although the Chronicle doesn’t be aware the place Morrison went to faculty.

Fierceton decided to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship that would have sent her to Oxford University, after the Rhodes committee's investigation into her application.
Fierceton determined to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship that might have despatched her to Oxford University, after the Rhodes committee’s investigation into her software.
Getty Images

Furthermore, the web site for Penn First Plus, the college’s inclusivity initiative, broadens the definition of first-generation to embody college students who “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree.”

By the time she utilized to Penn, Fierceton was estranged from her mom and supporting herself. Still, the college discovered Fierceton describing herself as “first-generation” on her software to graduate faculty to be “objectively inaccurate.”

Santini, the faculty advisor, famous: “On the economic side, there are so many applications to schools that it is impossible for schools to fact check everything.”

Penn is now withholding Fierceton’s grasp’s diploma — which she was scheduled to obtain in May 2020 — pending a ultimate disciplinary resolution. Her bachelor’s diploma is seemingly not in query.

The University of Pennsylvania stated in an announcement to the Chronicle: “Truthfulness is essential to academic integrity at Penn as well as a core selection criterion for the Rhodes Trust.”

Before Christmas, Fierceton filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania.
Before Christmas, Fierceton filed a lawsuit towards the University of Pennsylvania.

Just earlier than Christmas, Fierceton — who modified her final identify whereas in faculty — filed an explosive lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, claiming the college, its trustees and three Penn officers had participated in a fancy conspiracy towards her.

She alleges that Penn carried out a “sham investigation” into her background, unjustifiably withheld her grasp’s diploma and wrote a “secret letter” to the Rhodes committee to discredit her. The declare additionally accuses Wendy White, Penn’s normal counsel, of threatening to “come after” each of Fierceton’s levels if she didn’t give up her Rhodes scholarship.

Furthermore, Fierceton claims in her swimsuit that the college carried out its investigation as a result of she had complained to directors about inadequate entry to emergency companies at Penn after she had a seizure in school in early 2020.

“We are disappointed that Mackenzie Fierceton has chosen to file a lawsuit, especially after she has received so many opportunities at Penn,” a Penn consultant informed The Post. “There is no basis for Ms. Fierceton’s claims.”

Fierceton appears to have few regrets about her essays. As she informed the Chronicle: “Where I’ve landed is that I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them. Period.”

Jerry Oppenheimer is a bestselling biographer and a frequent contributor to The Post.

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