24-year-old Mackenzie Fierceton won the Rhodes scholarship in November 2020, but a tip-off to the prestigious committee kicked off a deeper investigation into the student's background. She wasn't poor and grew up in a wealthy household with a successful mother. It's from there the story unraveled.
Not only was Fierceton's scholarship revoked, the University of Pennsylvania is now withholding the student's master's degree pending its own inquiries.
The Inquirer did a story on Fierceton winning the Rhodes scholarship in November 2020. The paper was the first to reveal that a "poor" girl who bounced between foster homes had won the Rhodes scholarship.
"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," remarked Penn president Amy Gutmann at the time.
But it was after this initial scoop that the story unraveled, as The Chronicle of Higher Education outlined earlier this month. The Rhodes Trust learned from an "anonymous tip-off" about Fierceton's upbringing and schooling that contradicted what she asserted in her application.
"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," a Penn spokesperson told the New York Post.
Fierceton went to a Missouri private school that costs $30,000 per year. Her mother Dr. Carrie Morrison is an educated radiologist who raised her in a "four bedroom $750,000 suburban home," as the Daily Mail points out.
The outlet highlights how Fierceton and her mother ended up in court amid abuse claims that Morrison pushed her daughter down the stairs.
While the mother was briefly arrested, charges were dropped when prosecutors couldn't find proof of what Fierceton claimed.
A key claim working against her now is the label of being a "first generation" student. While the definition usually means to be the first in one's family to go to college – Fierceton's mother did so. It's also interpreted as how Fierceton was the first family member to pursue education at an "elite institution."
A nurse who took care of Fierceton during her 2014 hospital stay believed the girl was in fact "physically hurt, but even more so was how in shock she was. She was just this vacant, broken, empty child." After questioning Fierceton about the undergraduate essay she wrote when applying to Penn, the Rhodes committee concluded that Fierceton's characertization of events was "inconsistent with the hospital records," adding: "Either [Fierceton] has fabricated this abuse by her mother, or her mother has lied about the terrible abuse…"
But authorities also obtained a diary from Fierceton that shows the daughter weighing the pros and cons of reporting her mom to the cops.
Fierceton filed a lawsuit against Penn in late December 2021 over the debacle. In court filing she stands by her story about being in foster care and that she qualified as "low income" when applying to college.
In light of the Chronicle article, Morrison says she still loves her daughter. "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," Morrison said in a statement.