University of Pennsylvania student Mackenzie Fierceton had her Rhodes Scholarship revoked and her master's degree withheld after allegations surfaced that she was lying about her first-generation low-income status and life in foster care, according to an investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020, Fierceton was one of the 32 Rhodes Scholars chosen from more than 2,300 students in the United States, according to a statement from the University of Pennsylvania. Fierceton was in the process of completing a clinical master’s degree in social work, also at the University of Pennsylvania.
A November 2020 story The Philadelphia Inquirer lauded Fierceton for her accomplishments and included an interview with her.
"Statistics show that only 2% of foster youth graduate from four-year universities and most also do not even graduate from high school,” Fierceton told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The overwhelming majority of us do want to graduate high school – it’s just that because of a million systemic factors and barriers and obstacles and systematic oppression that everyone faces, it’s just very, very challenging."
After the article was published in November of 2020, an anonymous tip was sent to officials at the University of Pennsylvania and Rhodes Trust saying that Fierceton was “blatantly dishonest in the representation of her childhood" and included photos of Fierceton skydiving, riding a horse and whitewater rafting, according to The Chronicle.
The university and Rhodes Trust then launched an investigation into Fierceton's life, trying to understand what parts of her story were true.
"Penn and the Rhodes Trust received credible information that called into question statements Ms. Fierceton made in her applications for admission, financial assistance and scholarships," read a University of Pennsylvania statement to USA TODAY.
According to The Chronicle, the investigation revealed that Fierceton attended Whitfield, a private school in St. Louis with tuition of nearly $30,000 a year, and her mother was a radiologist with a college degree. The Chronicle also said that there were some records of Fierceton facing abuse from her mother resulting in hospitalization, but claims that Fierceton made about the extent of the injuries and her mother's involvement were shaky.
Fierceton has filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania over the investigation.
In a statement to USA TODAY, the University of Pennsylvania said, "We are disappointed that Mackenzie Fierceton has chosen to file a lawsuit, especially after she has received so many opportunities at Penn. Ordinarily, we do not comment on pending litigation. This matter, however, is far from ordinary... There is no basis for Ms. Fierceton’s claims. We are confident that Penn and the individuals named by Ms. Fierceton as additional defendants will be vindicated in the litigation."
The University of Pennsylvania says that the Rhodes Trust gave Fierceton the opportunity to withdraw her candidacy after a comprehensive report was provided to her and her attorney, after which Fierceton then decided to withdraw her candidacy.
Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Penn student loses Rhodes scholarship for lying about poor upbringing