A Rhodes Scholar No More

A UPenn graduate’s Rhodes Scholarship was recently revoked (photo credit: Bryan Y.W. Shin).

Oh no she didn’t! When University of Pennsylvania graduate Mackenzie Fierceton was named a Rhodes Scholar in November 2020, she was the pride of UPenn. In fact, she — a self-proclaimed first-generation college student, low-income, former foster child — was even praised by UPenn’s president in a community newsletter. Wrote UPenn President Amy Gutmann at the time, ““Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity…As a first-generation 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 what if Mackenzie was not a low-income student? What if she was not the first in her family to go to college? What if she was not in foster care? What if her story would all soon unravel?

As Jerry Oppenheimer and Isabel Vincent report for The New York Post in a salacious piece entitled “‘Rhodes Scholar’ claimed she grew up poor and abused — then her story started to unravel,” “Categorizing herself as a first-generation, low-income student with a history of horrific abuse — who also earned nearly straight A’s and was student-body president in high school — Fierceton certainly fit the bill. She was admitted to Penn in 2015 to study political science, then began studying for a clinical master’s degree in social work in 2018. When Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship was announced, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the academic 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 said in that story: ‘I would trade [the Rhodes honor] to have been adopted and have a family.’ But after that Nov. 22, 2020, profile ran, an anonymous accuser sent an email to Penn and the Rhodes Trust, claiming Fierceton’s story was ‘blatantly dishonest.’ The email reportedly alleged that Fierceton grew up in St. Louis, Mo., with her mother, an educated radiologist; that her family was upper-middle class; and that she had attended a fancy private high school and enjoyed such high-end hobbies as horseback riding.”

And boom goes the dynamite. The lesson? Don’t lie on your college application. You’re either a first-generation college student or you’re not. It’s not an opinion. If your mother is a radiologist, it means she not only attended college but also medical school. If you didn’t grow up in foster care, don’t say you did. Not only is it wrong, but it’s just not worth it. And do remember, a college offers a student admission on the basis of their honest application. Should the college subsequently learn that a student is not a first-generation college student when they said they were or didn’t grow up in foster care and wasn’t underprivileged, that college can revoke an acceptance or even a degree. Why do it? Why risk it? Be honest. In college admissions and in life.

Remember when the Yale football coach resigned back in 2012 because it came out that he lied about being a contender for the Rhodes Scholarship?


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  • Jeremy Soto says:

    This story resonates with me- one of my parents did go to a state college and the other has a high school diploma from a foreign country. Did I say I was first generation- no. I wish I could have- it would have helped, but I did not. Another thing I learned is how EASY it is to LIE and how many kids lie to get into great colleges. I would dare say that over half of kids attending Ivies have moderate to major lies on their apps that were never discovered. I think it is abhorrent- especially those liars who said they suffered abuse- like this beauty from Penn. Disgraceful. I have heard countless hard luck stories from college applicants- Hollywood-worthy stuff, and it really makes you ask yourself- really? I mean REALLY that happened to you?! I am sure some are true- unfortunately a good many are not.

  • Enologisto says:

    Here’s the dirty little secret: elite colleges don’t really want to fact-check the identity buckets they’ve created. They just want to be able to report to media outlets the percentages of those identity buckets they’ve admitted: 16% first gen; 12% black; 52% students of color, etc. Look at how much their elitist institution is now helping the great unwashed. Aren’t they virtuous?

    From the 1950s through the 1970s practically everyone was ‘first-gen’. What did that mean then? As little as it means today. Ask yourself why we’re even talking about it and it will start to make sense.

  • Diane says:

    I haven’t read the newspaper accounts of this story, but just based on this article, it’s somewhat surprising that UPenn didn’t realize something was up (at the admission stage) as she graduated from an elite private high school (which would have been obvious from her application) – I also wonder about her high school guidance counselor (who presumably had at least limited access to her application).

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