Mackenzie Fierceton began her application essay to the University of Pennsylvania by setting a bleak scene for the admissions officers. She is lying in a hospital bed with a feeding tube inserted in her mouth. Her facial features are so distorted that she “cannot tell them apart,” her blonde hair is “cake with blood,” and braces are stabilizing most of her body. Those injuries, she says, came at the hand of her own mother.
“The one who is my mother,” she wrote. “She broke me.”
On her master’s degree application to the University of Pennsylvania, she answered “yes” to the question: “Are you the first generation in your family to attend college?” The application also provided a space for an applicant to explain how being “a member of a community that has been historically underrepresented in higher education” would allow him or her to contribute to the community. Fierceton wrote in this space that she identifies as a “low-income, first-generation woman” and that this gives her an “understanding of the unique barriers low-income females face in accessing higher education.”
Her application for a Rhodes Scholarship begins with another heart-wrenching vignette. This one describes the moment she entered a new home in the foster-care system. “I drop the trash bag of donated clothes,” she wrote, “and sink to the floor.”
Fierceton was accepted to her undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania. She also won a Rhodes Scholarship. Her victory was trumpeted everywhere. Penn put out an article that included a quote from the president of the university. “Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity to build upon her Penn education and experience,” said Amy Gutmann. “As a first-generation low-income student and a former foster youth, Mackenzie is passionate about championing young people in those communities through her academic, professional, and personal endeavors, dedicating herself to a life of public service.”
Then there was the Philadelphia Inquirer article. Written by acclaimed investigative reporter Wendy Ruderman, it included a full interview with Fierceton and was complemented by a photoshoot from staff photographer Elizabeth Robertson. In the shoot, Fierceton wore a T-shirt that said “Foster Youth Voices Now” and a frayed jean jacket.
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“Mackenzie Fierceton grew up poor, cycling through the rocky child welfare system,” the article begins. “She bounced from one foster home to the next. One home, during her junior year of high school, was so ‘toxic’ and crammed with other foster kids that she left for weeks at a time, sleeping each night on a carousel of couches at the homes of various friends, she said.”
“I would trade all of this to have been adopted,” Fierceton told the Inquirer of her Rhodes scholarship and accolades at Penn. (Fierceton legally changed her last name in college, later saying her name “reflects who I am broadly and specific to my identities as a queer, low-income, survivor, and former foster youth living with a disability and chronic illness.”)
But then anonymous emails were sent out to the Rhodes Trust and the University of Pennsylvania. The emails included photos from Fierceton’s high-school yearbook that showed her skydiving, riding a horse, and whitewater rafting. The current annual tuition of her private high school? $29,875.
Fierceton was “blatantly dishonest in the representation of her childhood,” one of the emails alleged.
Her mother, it turned out, is a highly accomplished doctor, and Fierceton lived for most of her childhood in a neighborhood where the median household income is $160,000. Fierceton had been attending expensive private schools her whole life.
But Fierceton maintains that she was telling the truth when she said she was low-income and a first-generation college student. That’s because when Fierceton was 17 years old, she moved into the foster care system after accusing her mother of abuse. The alleged incident preceded the 22-day hospital stay that she describes in her Penn admissions essay.
Fierceton doesn’t describe the alleged incident in her admissions essay, but she testified at a court hearing in 2019 that her mother pushed her down the stairs at their house and afterwards struck her in the face. As a result of those allegations, her mother was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse or neglect and one count of misdemeanor assault.
Her mother, Carrie Morrison, gave a very different story of what happened that day. She explained she was helping her daughter remove gum from hair when Fierceton jerked her head, went down a few steps, and then sat down. Her daughter was a difficult child who struggled with anxiety and was sometimes defiant, she explained.
As a result of the hearing, the judge, Kristine Allen Kerr, ruled that Morrison should be kept off Missouri’s child-abuse registry. Kerr wrote that Fierceton’s hospital stay went “well beyond what would be expected for treatment of the bruising she presented with.” Kerr added that Fierceton had provided “different facts” in her college admissions essays and that she had certain gaps in her memory.
The feeding tube, it later came out, was to treat “behavioral” eating problems. Moreover, none of Fierceton’s bones were broken, contrasting her claim that braces were stabilizing most of her body. During her hospital stay, according to her medical records, she exhibited “seizure-like activity.”
All the charges against Morrison were dropped. And the prosecutor in St. Louis who charged Morrison, Michael Hayes, now believes Fierceton’s allegations of abuse were fraudulent and manipulative.
Charging Morrison, Hayes told Penn’s general counsel, was the “biggest mistake of my career.”
Hayes learned after filing the charges that Fierceton had regular temper tantrums. Her cousin, Colleen, who lived with Fierceton and her mother for a time, told Hayes that she had never witnessed any abuse by Morrison and that it was possible Fierceton had caused her own injuries.
In addition, Fierceton told police that her mother was abusing drugs, but no drugs or evidence of this was found as a result of a search warrant. Earlier in her childhood, Fierceton had also complained to child services about her mother’s boyfriend, but that had been dismissed because of a lack of evidence as well.
After receiving the anonymous emails, Penn and the Rhodes Trust began investigations into Fierceton’s history. Both concluded that she had not been entirely honest about her background. Penn is now withholding her master’s degree, and the Rhodes Trust report recommended rescinding her scholarship. (She withdrew from the Rhodes program.)
And yet, Fierceton is still attending Oxford University. Moreover, she has kept some of the media on her side.
In an article highly sympathetic to Fierceton published Friday, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the preeminent publication on higher education, pointed its ire at Penn. The university, the article by Tom Bartlett explained, had subjected Fierceton to an intensive interrogation that left her “struggl[ing] to maintain her composure.” The article is even headlined “The Dredging” to communicate how invasive the university’s investigation was.
Bartlett wrote that the university’s investigation into Fierceton’s background “would infuriate some Penn professors, who argue that the university was mistreating a young woman with a troubled past.”
“The student who had been celebrated by the university as among its best and brightest,” Bartlett continued, “would come to believe that the same university was intent on taking away everything she had achieved.”
Like the Inquirer article, the Chronicle article landed Fierceton another photoshoot and interview. The photoshoot, by Tracie Van Auken, features Fierceton standing forlornly, yet determinedly, in front of a blurred background of pillars. Like in her shoot for the Inquirer, she’s wearing a necklace that says “Fierce.”
Bartlett goes on criticizing the University of Pennsylvania’s investigation for unduly burdening Fierceton: “It seemed to Fierceton as if everything she had written about herself was now under suspicion.”
He raises the question of whether or not Fierceton was required to tell Penn how she came to understand herself as a first-generation low-income college student. He writes that the website for Penn’s diversity, equity, and inclusion center says those who “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree” qualify as first-generation.
“Was she obligated to reveal how, in her mind, she came to hold that designation?” Bartlett writes.
He also comes to her defense for exaggerating her injuries during her 22-day hospital stay. “Read as journalism, her essay falls short,” Bartlett writes. “But what if it’s viewed as an impressionistic piece of writing — a poem, as she has called it? … was this canny self-presentation meant to elicit sympathy, or was reality being filtered through the feelings of a teenager in distress?”
Bartlett interviewed people who believe Fierceton’s allegations of abuse against her mother. One of the nurses, Sherry McClain, who treated Fierceton while she was in the hospital, said that “She was physically hurt, but even more so was how in shock she was.” McClain added, “It could very well be more exaggerated than it was, but the fact of the matter was it was legit, you know?” Two of her professors also expressed their belief in Fierceton and criticized the university for its investigation.
Morrison, for her part, emailed the Chronicle a statement: “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.”
One possible explanation for this depressing story is that Mackenzie Fierceton fraudulently accused her own mother of gravely abusing and attempting to kill her, spent 22 days in the hospital to peddle that story, sold that story to punch her ticket to the Ivy League, and further capitalized on it to win a Rhodes Scholarship and a trip to Oxford. It would be a stunning manipulation of an admissions system that rewards coveted spots to those who tell the best sob stories.
Another possibility is that she’s telling the truth. And that’s what Fierceton is defiantly working through the courts to prove.
In late December, Fierceton filed a lawsuit against University of Pennsylvania officials and Philadelphia Inquirer journalists alleging they conspired to smear her and targeted her for retaliation because she was a witness in a wrongful death lawsuit against the university. The lawsuit claims that Penn conducted a “sham” investigation.
The lawsuit says that Penn’s news officer, Louisa Shepard, leaked “false and baseless accusations” about Fierceton to her husband, Gabriel Escobar, who is senior vice president of the Inquirer.
As for the wrongful death case, Cameron Driver, a Penn graduate student, died in September 2018 after experiencing “‘seizure like activity’ in connection with a cardiac arrest,” in the basement of Penn’s Caster Building, according to the lawsuit.
Fierceton claims that she “suffered a seizure” while in the basement of the Caster Building just 16 months after that incident. The lawsuit says that afterwards, she spent five days at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, including three days at the neurological intensive care unit.
“Due to the inaccessibility of the Caster Building, and specifically its basement, and the Penn Defendants’ improper emergency protocol, it took more than an hour for emergency personnel to remove [Fierceton] from the building,” the lawsuit states. “This delay caused [Fierceton’s] condition to further deteriorate.” Fierceton is now one of the key witnesses in the wrongful death lawsuit for Cameron Driver.
Is this just another tale spun by Fierceton? Is it mental illness? Or, is she just living a very unlucky life?
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