The New York Post, king of headlines and often of overstatement, had an interesting story last night: “Rhodes Scholar claimed she grew up poor and abused — then her story started to unravel.” The piece had all the trappings of a schadenfreude yarn: a college student at the University of Pennsylvania had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship — the University of Oxford program which mints an annual group of students who will never talk about anything else for the rest of their lives — only to face accusations that she had been “blatantly dishonest” about her troubled childhood.
The student had presented herself as a “low-income, first-generation college student who had passed through the foster-care system” and suffered brutal abuse at her mother’s hand. But an anonymous tipster later told the University she had grown up in an affluent suburb, the daughter of a radiologist, and attended a private high school. She had even changed her last name (to “Fierceton,” the origin of which is unclear).
At first glance, the saga seems like a tidy illustration of how stupid college admissions have become — where sitcom actresses are doing time for faking their kids’ applications, and students are pressured to milk their personal tragedies for anonmyous university officials. Under closer review, however, this particular story is a little slippier — and while the student, Mackenzie Fierceton, doesn’t come off as entirely truthful about her past, the University seems equally, if not more severely, at fault.
The article was an aggregation of a much more thorough piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education, which detailed an investigation going back to Nov. 2020. That was the month Fierceton won the Rhodes, and was subsequently profiled by both The Philadelphia Inquirer and campus outlet PennToday. Shortly after, the anonymous source emailed university officials, including pictures of Fierceton “skydiving, riding a horse, and whitewater rafting,” and prompting investigations from both Rhodes and the University into the accuracy of her apparent disadvantages. But the Post and Chronicle framed them somewhat differently.
From the Post article, it’s easy to get the impression this woman made up most of her hardship, financial and otherwise. It’s true, for example, that Fierceton was not low-income for most of her childhood. Here’s the Post:
According to the Chronicle, Fierceton lived with her mother, Carrie Morrison — a divorcée and director of breast imaging and mammography at a local hospital — “on a [suburban] tree-lined cul-de-sac with large houses and well-groomed lawns.” She attended Whitfield, a $30,000-a-year private school in St. Louis, although the Chronicle does not note how her tuition was paid for or if she received financial aid.
But the Chronicle article provides some fairly crucial context — namely, that Fierceton’s relationship with her mother was strained enough to have been visited by child-welfare when she was a child and that Fierceton contemporaneously documented their problems in a year-long personal journal. Most notably, the Chronicle details how, in September of 2014, there was an altercation that led to the mother’s arrest, two charges of felony child abuse or neglect and one of misdemeanor assault, a police investigation and a court hearing.
There are several uncertainties about the case: the two have differing accounts of the night, there were no witnesses, and the charges against her mother were later dropped. Afterwards though, Fierceton spent three weeks in the hospital (some of it in pediatric intensive care) and was placed in a series of foster homes through her senior year.
But here’s how the Post sums it up:
In 2019, Fierceton testified in a court hearing that, in September 2014, her mother allegedly pushed her down a set of stairs and hit her in the face several times. The teen said she was sent to the hospital the next day after collapsing at school. Fierceton’s mother denied the account and said the teen had accidentally gone down two or three steps while Morrison was helping remove gum from her hair.
Morrison told the Chronicle in 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.” (The Post was not able to reach Morrison, Fierceton or Fierceton’s lawyer, Dion Rassias, for comment.)
After the 2014 incident, Morrison was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse or neglect and one count of misdemeanor assault — charges that were later dropped. An email from assistant prosecuting attorney Michael Hayes, quoted in the Chronicle, said: “The more I learned [about the case], the less certain I became about what really happened.”
No one disputes that Fierceton spent a year in official foster care, during which she bounced around to different homes, and then continued to live with a foster family. But Winkelstein said in a letter to the Rhodes committee, sent a week after her call with Fierceston, that the student had “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood” and recommended that the committee conduct its own probe, which it did in April 2021.
The investigations into Fierceton’s accused distortions focused primarily on her application essay — specifically on her descriptions of the alleged abuse and her subsequent time in the hospital. The essay begins describing, per the Chronicle, “her lying in a hospital bed, a feeding tube in her mouth, her ‘facial features so distorted and swollen that [she] cannot tell them apart.’” She claims, among other things, that her hair was “caked with dried blood,” that she had “braces stabilizing most of [her] body,” that “every single part of [her] broken body hurt,” and that the medical equipment in her room was there “to make sure [she doesn’t] stop breathing again.”
The Chronicle paints a fairly complex picture of how Fierceton’s depiction holds up to her medical records — going through each detail and showing how, while the claims are not precisely accurate, they are also not complete lies. Her medical records don’t note that she had “blood in her hair,” for example, but one of her nurses recalled helping wash it out. Likewise, there wasn’t any evidence Fieldston had required help breathing, but she had noted that doing it hurt. She had no broken bones, but there was a photo of her wearing a neck brace. The records claimed her eating problems were merely “behavioral,” but she did have a feeding tube. “Read as journalism, her essay falls short,” the Chronicle notes. But “was this canny self-presentation meant to elicit sympathy, or was reality being filtered through the feelings of a teenager in distress?”
For contrast, here’s what the Post wrote:
In [Fierceton’s essay], she detailed her hospital stay after the alleged incident with her mother, including claims that her hair was “caked with dried blood” and her facial features were “so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart.” The committee concluded that this 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…”
The Post displays the greatest restraint on a detail with which Fierceton arguably showed the least: that she was a first-generation college student. Under the common definition of the term, Fierceton is not first-gen, as both her mother and grandfather reportedly graduated college. But Penn itself defines the label loosely. On one site, it is the first of a family to “pursue higher education at an elite institution.” Additionally, the website of its inclusivity hub, Penn First Plus, claims students qualify as first gen if they “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s)” in their family “who hold(s) a bachelors degree.” Fierceton told the Chronicle: “I identify as a FGLI [first-generation, low-income] student based on Penn’s own definitions of FGLI.”
There are so many ways to mock and excoriate the private university system; it’s absolutely begging to be abolished or at the very least, taxed. But The Post chose an odd subject to turn into a poster child for upper-class excesses. College application essays aren’t the only places where people highlight the parts of a story they think a reader will like best.