ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KTVI) — A former Ivy League student who earned one of the world’s most prized scholarships is accused of stretching the truth on her application.
The problem was that the sad story Mackenzie Fierceton was telling colleges and committees did not match the year of her life spent in foster care.
Fierceton was named Penn’s 2021 Rhodes Scholar. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Penn and was working on a master’s in social work. The 23-year-old planned to use the scholarship to go to Oxford to pursue a Ph.D. in social policy.
Fierceton beat out more than 2,300 applicants from across the country to win the prestigious award, which allows recipients to study for free at Oxford University in England.
She won the scholarship, in part, because of her story. Fierceton said that she grew up in the child foster care system, bouncing from home to home, and staying on friend’s couches because some of the living conditions were so bad.
Telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that she poured herself into her studies, she said: “School was always an outlet because I never felt like I had any control over my home life or any other part of my life.”
“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,” wrote University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann during the announcement of the award.
An investigation into her past by the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that her story did not match reality. They say that a tipster contacted the Rhodes committee and Penn, calling Fierceton’s story dishonest. She actually grew up with her mother in a home on a tree-lined street in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Her mother has a very nice job at a St. Louis area hospital, and Fierceton enjoyed hobbies like horseback riding.
Fierceton also changed her last name while in college.
There were some other red flags. A 2020 profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows that she is a 2016 graduate from Whitfield School in Creve Coeur, a suburb of St. Louis. The tuition for that institution is around $30,000 a year before financial aid. She told the newspaper that her foster homes were in Manchester, Clayton, and Creve Coeur.
Fierceton did spend a year in foster care. That was after an incident with her mother. But the people investigating the case say that her childhood was not as harsh as she claimed.
The Rhodes committee recommended that Fierceton’s scholarship be revoked. In response, she withdrew herself from the honor. Penn is also withholding Fierceton’s master’s degree because of their concerns about the truth. Fierceton says that administrators are involved in a conspiracy against her.