In 2020, former foster child Mackenzie Fierceton received a Rhodes Scholarship as a self-identified “first generation, low income” student at the University of Pennsylvania. But the acclaim quickly devolved into acrimony as the university and the Rhodes Trust began questioning aspects of Fierceton’s backstory. The battle between her and the school was chronicled by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker earlier this month. Fierceton joins Ryan Grim to discuss the saga of her battle with UPenn and why the Ivy League institution seems to have so much trouble recognizing the complexity of poverty in America.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: This week’s guest on Deconstructed is Mackenzie Fierceton, who was the subject of a recent story in The New Yorker.
The article by reporter Rachel Aviv was called “How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student,” and it tells the story of an extraordinary battle between Mackenzie and the University of Pennsylvania. If you haven’t read the story yet, I highly recommend pausing this, and giving it a read first, because I try not to go over too much of the same territory in my interview with her.
But the outline of the story is this: Mackenzie was raised in a wealthy St. Louis suburb by a single mother who was repeatedly abusive, according to two state agencies. Her junior year at Whitfield, a prestigious prep school, Mackenzie showed up to school one day in a terrible state. Her history teacher described the incident this way: “She showed up at my classroom door with a bloodied and battered face and then fainted.”
Mackenzie was hospitalized. In The New Yorker piece, a nurse assigned to Mackenzie is quoted as saying, “She had two black eyes, and her hair was full of blood. She had bruises all over her body in different stages of healing — an obvious sign of child abuse.”
Mackenzie told the police her mother had pushed her down the stairs and struck her in the face. Her mother had no explanation for the injuries, other than saying perhaps she had done it to herself. Her mother was arrested and charged with abuse, and Mackenzie went into foster care. The mother hired a high-powered attorney and engaged in a local campaign to discredit Mackenzie. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges and the arrest record was expunged.
The department of social services substantiated Mackenzie’s allegations, as did the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board, which is an independent state panel. Her mother’s name was entered into a registry of abusers. She petitioned the court, and was able to successfully have her name removed, with a judge ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the abuse allegations specifically, saying, “While it is possible that Petitioner was the cause of the alleged injuries, the court cannot make that finding by a preponderance of the evidence based on the evidence presented.”
Mackenzie, for her part, was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and, in her sophomore year, won a Rhodes Scholarship. But her mother wasn’t finished with her.
An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer erroneously wrote that she had grown up poor. The reporter had assumed based on her status as a FGLI student — which stands for first-generation, low-income — that she had been poor her entire life. But it doesn’t mean you were always low-income, just that you are now. Within days of the article being published, the university’s general counsel was in touch with Mackenzie’s mother. Mackenzie’s critics even began nitpicking how much blood was in her hair while she was in the intensive care unit. Ultimately, she lost her Rhodes Scholarship, and Penn withheld her master’s degree, demanding a letter of apology.
I reached out for a response to the University of Pennsylvania and also Provost Beth Winkelstein and General Counsel Wendy White for a response, as well as to Mackenzie’s biological mother. They didn’t respond, though Mackenzie’s biological mother has denied the allegations of abuse. The university, in its response to Mackenzie’s lawsuit, referred to Mackenzie’s mother as “an accomplished physician” and claimed that a court had found her allegations not to be credible. The university writes:
“After those who knew Fierceton raised questions about her story, it was investigated – not just once, but several times, and not just by Penn faculty and staff, but also the Rhodes Trust. Those investigations revealed that for the first 17 years of her life, Fierceton was raised by her mother, Dr. Carrie Morrison, an accomplished physician. Fierceton grew up in a wealthy community and attended an elite private school in a St. Louis suburb. She entered foster care only at the age of 17, after making a complaint of abuse against Dr. Morrison — a complaint that a court later found not to be credible. Every objective and careful reviewer of the facts in this case — including the Rhodes Trust, Penn’s Office of Student Conduct, a faculty committee from Fierceton’s graduate school at Penn, and a hearing panel consisting of faculty and students from other Penn schools — concluded that Fierceton had not been truthful.”
In any event, The University of Oxford, where Mackenzie’s doing her Ph.D., has remained supportive, and in the wake of The New Yorker investigation, and the resulting protests from students and faculty, Penn lifted the hold on her degree. Mackenzie is currently suing the university.
Mackenzie, welcome to Deconstructed.
Mackenzie Fierceton: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
RG: And so, like I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to go over too much of the history that led up to your battle with Penn and with the Rhodes trust, because people can find that in The New Yorker article that came out recently, you went over that in some pretty decent length; in Katie Couric’s podcast in a recent interview there. I think this is a conversation not necessarily for people who are still in question about what happened here.
RG: Instead, I want to talk more about what this says about the system, that something so seemingly irrational could be produced by this system, and actually could be predicted to be produced by this system in some ways.
And so I wanted to start with where things really started to unravel for you. And I’m curious where you would pinpoint it, but I would guess that it’s The Philadelphia Inquirer story that started with an incorrect lead that said: Mackenzie Fierston grew up poor, something very close to that? Or do you think that the wheels were already in motion before that?
MF: I think you’re right. That is when I would trace it back to. That evening that the article came out is when I got a call from the reporter saying: I got this anonymous email that said X, Y, Z, and I wanted to let you know.
And we had a fairly lengthy conversation, just kind of going through the ins and outs of my childhood and left it at, she was like: OK, I understand now and I’m just going to leave this. And I kind of felt like things were resolved until the next week when there was more — [laughs] — more downhill event.
RG: Mhmm. And how much confidence do you have that that anonymous complainer was Carrie, your biological mother.
MF: You know, I honestly don’t know. My understanding is there were two anonymous emails. One of them, to me, felt pretty clear that it was probably from someone in my biological family, because it had photos of me; it had very specific information that very few people would have — and I don’t think many people would have random childhood photos of me. [Laughs.]
RG: So, to cut into the interview here real quick, I wanted to add that Mackenzie is referring to a letter sent to the Rhodes Trust in December 2020. The Inquirer story came out in November 2020.
The New Yorker reported it was written “by an anonymous sender who displayed a great deal of familiarity with Mackenzie’s childhood — that showed Mackenzie engaging in ‘typical upper middle-class childhood activities,’ like horseback riding and going to the beach.”
Alright, back to the interview.
MF: So to me it was pretty clear that it likely came from them. But I guess I can’t say for sure.
RG: Right. And we do know for sure that she was in touch with the university. That’s not in question. And that’s actually one of the things that, if there was any doubt whatsoever about this story, in some ways it was settled by that.
In other words, if you are parent who says that you are wishing your daughter well and you’re telling the authorities that she’s just mentally ill and it’s just a really, really sad and tragic case that she’s making up all of these allegations of abuse and throwing herself down stairs, and beating herself up — all for cries for help, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — you wouldn’t then also pursue a multi-year long effort to destroy her life.
RG: Like, those two things don’t fit together. And so the fact that she’s continued pursuing you to me kind of demonstrates the entire case. It didn’t, though, to the University of Pennsylvania. So they heard from her and immediately they call you into a meeting with the deputy provost at the time, Beth Winkelstein —
RG: — who was, I believe now, the acting provost.
RG: So what was that meeting like?
MF: Just a quick circling back, I’m actually not sure if it was her who first reached out or if it was General Counsel Wendy White, because I later found out that they had a phone call about 36 hours after the article came out and seemed to talk pretty extensively, and then there were a lot of emails that happened. So I’m not sure if it was Penn who reached out to her or vice versa, which I think is also an important question in all of this.
MF: But yeah, that, I guess, just one point of clarification that I recently, in the last few months, just found out about. ’Cause I had assumed it was her.
So, yes. Like you said, I was called into a meeting. This was about a week after. And I suspected that it was about this anonymous email. And I asked in the email exchange: Is this about the anonymous email? And I didn’t get an answer. And I asked again and just said: I’ve had different experiences of harassment for the last four years at Penn. You’re welcome to talk to Penn Police or their Division of Special Services or the Women’s Center, or any program that I’ve been involved in, or people that have been involved in supporting me who can corroborate this. And I was actually really nervous about doing any press for this reason. And I haven’t been on any of the Penn websites. Like I just haven’t, really, there to be a lot of information about me publicly. ’Cause I’ve just wanted to go on with my life and, you know, live it. But I got a bit of pressure from Penn to do that. So I was like: OK, fine.
But I agreed to come into this Zoom meeting and this was the last day of November 2020. And I’ve brought my mentor with me. I didn’t really know what it was going to be, but I feel like it’s always good to have someone with you. And we entered the meeting and it immediately felt really hostile to me. Now-provost Beth Winkelstein told this person: I know you’re here as a supporter for MacKenzie, but you cannot speak. If you speak, I’m going to disconnect you from the call. And MacKenzie is the only one who’s allowed to answer these questions. We need to stay on task.
And I told them I only have a half-hour, because I’m working, I’m in class, and we’re going to go through all of this. And then it just launched into the first half being a line-by-line — it felt like interrogation — of my applications. And like: Why are you considered an independent student? Who are your biological family? What foster family were you with in X,Y, Z year? How old were you when you were applying to college? Just like some basic questions [laughs] and then a lot of detailed questions about my application. And then very quickly turn to very specific questions about different instances of abuse.
And it became pretty clear to me that they had spoken to Carrie and or seen medical records. But it was just kind of this rapid fire of: If we look at your medical records, are we going to see you had broken ribs and severe facial injuries? What happened the night you ended up in foster care? How did you get to school? How long were you in the hospital? Why were you in the hospital that long? What happened after you went out of the hospital? Was there abuse before this?
And I don’t remember all of the questions, but it was a really intense, rapid fire of really difficult and challenging questions. [Laughs.] And I was having flashbacks to cross-examinations and depositions I’d given about this — which later made sense, because we found out that Wendy White had spoken with one of Carrie’s defense lawyers.
So it makes some sense that they were very similar questions.
RG: So one of the questions that you mentioned that they asked was about your essay —
RG: — which, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it begins saying something along the lines of: You’re in the hospital, you looked in the mirror, and you couldn’t recognize yourself, you couldn’t recognize your features. To me, it seems like any reader of the English language would read that in a literary sense —
RG: — of it’s self-exploration, self-doubt, trauma. And it’s — no offense — it’s not like the most profound —
MF: No! [Laughs.]
RG: — insight.
RG: Is that what sent you into a surreal state? Because processes become Kafkaesque very quickly.
RG: And that feels like one of them — where it feels like the system is willfully misunderstanding reality in order to bend it in their direction.
MF: Yeah. That was my personal statement. I wrote a poem about — the actual what the message was, which is so cheesy and I’m cringing at my 17-year-old self [laughs], but it was about the healing power of gratitude. And it started with, this paragraph-and-a-half of waking up in the hospital and then, like you said, looking at my face, not recognizing myself, and kind of describing what I felt like and what the room looked like. And then I remembered that my teacher had told me to write a gratitude list. And at the time I was like: Why — what? Why would I do that? My life is over, I’m in the hospital, I’m at rock bottom.
And I decided to do it cause I felt like I had nothing to lose — and I ended up making gratitude lists every day for years and it really was a very healing experience for me. So that was what the actual poem and personal statement was about [laughs.] But it did open with these literary elements of what I was feeling like, and the experience I was having in those moments.
RG: And how much did she challenge your medical condition after that beating?
MF: She definitely asked some questions about it. It was more, I think, in the times after and the months after where I ended up like giving different medical records and all of these things to corroborate my account, but there were a few questions that were very specific to what had happened.
RG: And I just want to read this for people. In The New Yorker article, one teacher had written: “She showed up at my classroom door with a bloodied and battered face and then fainted.”
RG: And then, Rachel Aviv, the reporter also quotes Sherry McClain, who was a nurse who was assigned to you, she said: “She had two black eyes, and her hair was full of blood. She had bruises all over her body in different stages of healing — an obvious sign of child abuse.”
And so, Mackenzie, you and I were just talking offline. You had mentioned that you actually made a transcript of your interview with Deputy Provost Finkelstein shortly after the conversation. Anything interesting in that that you noticed? And did you find this after The New Yorker article was published?
MF: No, I found it before. So Rachel had it and Penn disputed it. And I don’t remember exactly what their statement was, but they disputed it. And I think said something along the lines of there were things missing and it was distorted. And it’s funny, ’cause it just made me so frustrated and I actually went back and read it. And if you read it aloud, it’s almost exactly the length of the phone call. So I’m not sure how much could have been missing. [Laughs.]
But it’s interesting because most of the questions are about these applications and then the second half is when it turns to these questions of the abuse. And: Did you report what was going on to your school? And what happened after that? And after you talked to the school, how did you get to school the next morning? What happened the night before? Did you go into foster care? If we review your medical records, are we going to see you had broken ribs and facial injuries?
And so that was when it really transitioned, the second half of it, into these really intimate questions about my abuse until the point where I was sobbing and couldn’t answer the questions anymore.
RG: Anything in particular jump out at you after having read back over that transcript?
MF: I mean, part of it is honestly like it’s looking at — cause we just wanted to be as thorough as possible of when [laughs] I was crying, and then I was crying and taking breaths. And it’s striking to see just the continuing to push of what happened. Now I’m sobbing, I’m hyperventilating, and the staff member interrupted and said: Can we have an estimate of how much time is left?
No, I can’t. We’re close to done. I can’t say how many questions are left and we’re close to done.
And the staff member saying like: I understand, can you please give Mackenzie an estimate of how many questions are left?
And just Deputy Provost Finkelstein saying: No. I said we’re almost done. That’s why I’m pausing to let her catch her breath.
And I think it’s striking to read that back and just see how clearly distressed and distraught I was in continuing to push on that series of questions about a really traumatic experience.
RG: Penn officials, of course, have said the interview was appropriate. And so was it later, in a different conversation where they asked about the line in the essay about not being able to recognize yourself or is there some illusion to that in the transcript that you found? Because that was one of the ones that really blew my mind.
MF: Yeah. So they didn’t ask about that in this meeting. So that was, I think later on that specific line came into question. In the transcript, I wrote it was really just focused on: What happened the night you went into foster care? Are we going to see these injuries? And the chain of events that happened leading into foster care?
RG: Like questioning: How much blood? Enough blood? Enough bruises?
Like, that sort of thing?
MF: So those questions really came later. There was, yes, disagreement, because I said there was blood in my hair in the essay, they said there wasn’t enough blood or there wasn’t blood or something. Even though I had, again, written statements from two ICU nurses who took care of me saying: Yes, there was blood, [laughs] there’s photographs, and there still was the argument of like, there wasn’t enough blood or your face wasn’t so distorted you could couldn’t tell who you were.
And like you said, like, yes, obviously I was looking in a mirror, and I knew I was looking in a mirror. So yes, I know that is me. [Laughs.] But it was in the sense of: I didn’t recognize myself both because I was beaten and my face was swollen and whatever, and I felt like at rock bottom and broken. So those questions came like later on and were really a part of the initial interrogation.
RG: I want to talk about where you think that pushback came from. I have some of my own theories, but I want to hear yours. As you’ve had time to sort through this, what do you think was driving Penn to go through this process, which they had to know, at some level, would cost them? And so they had to see some benefit to them in doing this.
MF: It’s hard to say. There were so many — there are, I guess I should say — so many moving pieces. I’m part of a wrongful death lawsuit that was filed in August, 2020. And I was the one who uncovered my classmate’s death.
RG: Talk just a little bit about that case —
RG: — so that people have the background there.
MF: Yeah. The background, yeah.
So, I myself, had a seizure in the basement of my grad school in January, 2020, and it took over an hour to get me out of the basement because they couldn’t fit a stretcher or a backboard down the stairs or the elevator. Also, there was a delay in getting the Penn Police there because they didn’t know where the building was. Then the Philly paramedics couldn’t figure out how to get to the building — and then they couldn’t get me out.
Again, this is obviously secondhand, because I was unconscious. So these are all things I’ve learned [laughs] — I learned after the fact. But once I got out of the hospital and I learned that information, I remembered that a classmate had died in the same basement about 16 months earlier. And I didn’t really know any information, except for that he had had a medical emergency in class and then been pronounced dead at the hospital. But I just had a bad feeling and I started to try to find more information.
And I started interviewing people who were in the class where he died and who were in nearby classes where he died, who knew him, and paramedics who were — Penn paramedics — and just as many people as I could. And it became pretty clear to me that there had been a very similar delay in his care, but even worse dynamics. There’s no cell phone reception in the basement. So the students had to form a human chain from the first floor down to the basement where all our classes are to relay instructions from the paramedics, the Philadelphia paramedics, to the professor who was, to my understanding, performing CPR. And it was a very similar situation where it took everyone a long time to get to the building. There’s a lot of chaos. It seemed like there was a lack of internal emergency protocols within our grad school, the School of Social Policy & Practice. And then again there was trouble getting him out of the basement.
I wasn’t there for all of this, but after I went through all these interviews, that was my conclusion. And I ended up reaching out to his widow — I found her on Facebook and sent her a message just to say: You know, I think I found some information.
I had no idea what she already knew. And she ended up responding right away, and asked to get on a phone call. And we spoke for a long time and I went through everything I had found. And she was shocked. She didn’t know any of the circumstances of his death. She thought that he had been very quickly removed from the building. She didn’t even know what building he had died in. She didn’t know he was in the basement.
RG: Penn didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in its response to Mackenzie’s lawsuit, they write: “Penn denies that there are accessibility problems with the Caster Building which contributed to Mackenzie’s medical emergency or to [Cameron] Driver’s death.
MF: So that’s the background of him. And I turned over all this information to his widow. And then she hired a law firm and eventually they were doing their own investigation for several months. I tried to help as much as I could. I took photos of the building and sent it to them, and I was connecting them with different people who were in my class, who were in his class. And eventually they filed a big wrongful death lawsuit in August 2020.
RG: And so you’re becoming rather inconvenient to the university at that point —
RG: — I would assume, which plays into the way that universities and elite structures think of diversity, I think. Not as something that is for the benefit of the MacKenzies, the people who were being brought into the school, but actually for the benefit of the university itself, its image — and also for the students. Like, they want to curate a diverse experience for their well-off students, so that they can say that they had this diverse experience in college —
RG: — or in graduate school. And they’ll openly talk about this. And I think it’s true. I think they do have a richer experience if they have more diversity around them, but that is more the point.
RG: Rather than it being for the purpose of benefiting the students themselves.
And so, yes, if the student, then, is no longer useful, I could imagine it turning. But I also think it has something to do with the way that we understand poverty.
RG: I think for a lot of us, we have to sort of other poverty and abuse and put it in a box, partly, to protect ourselves. And because poverty and abuse are so pervasive in society and particularly in a country that has such a minimal social safety net and has so much violence.
RG: And all of us, no matter what our situation, are not completely safe from it. And I think psychologically one way people feel safer about it is to say: No, that happens to other people. And those other people are kind of like the orphans that we think of in Dickensian novels.
RG: Or whatever our kind of contemporary version of it is. ’Cause then you can’t think that it could be you.
RG: And so if it’s a well-educated white girl from a private school, that’s way too close to home for a lot of these elites.
RG: And do you know Linda Tirado? Have you ever heard of her case?
MF: No. I’m not familiar with her.
RG: She, about 10 years ago, she wrote a comment — I think on a Gawker post or something like that — that we ended up then re-publishing as an essay at The Huffington Post about, and it was about her life in poverty, and it went viral, millions of people read it, extremely well-written piece. And she had gone to a private school growing up. She had had a fairly upper middle class life yet was working at multiple fast food restaurants and barely getting by.
And she quickly got interest of a book deal because she was obviously such a great writer. And then instantly people started picking her story apart.
RG: And one of the main things they pointed to was that she had gone to this private school —
RG: — as a kid. And it felt very similar that, well, this can’t be real. Because that’s not how we understand poverty. You have a good education — and you’re clearly smart.
And if those things are true, and you’re also struggling in poverty, then something is deeply wrong with the system. And we can’t acknowledge that, so we then have to pick apart the other pieces of it, and say that — well this, this just can’t be real.
I’m curious, having dealt with so many people along the way, who are questioning your story, how do you feel like the boxes play into this? And is it somewhat of a defense mechanism that people deploy to protect themselves?
MF: Absolutely. I do think that it is a huge defense mechanism that people deploy. And, in this case, almost everyone who was involved in the university administration are upper middle class or very wealthy, highly academically educated white women. And now they have to face the fact that someone who looks like them, who shares all these identities with them, could be the source of all of this harm. And that dynamic, I would say, [laughs] probably played a big part in all of this.
And back in high school, it was a similar thing. I was in this private school with a lot of upper-middle class or wealthy white students. And it was also — the community was kind of divided. Some people were very much on my side; some people were very much, I think, in that sort of cognitive dissonance of: This can’t be true because if it can, then I’m in danger. This could happen to me. This can happen to someone in my community.
And I also think we have this racist and classist notion of who can be an abuser or who can cause harm. And we have this idea of what a person looks like who commits a crime or who gets arrested for child abuse. And my biological family did not fit those stereotypes, and I think that was really hard for people to process.
RG: Right. And you saw that playing out right away, right, when your biological mother was first arrested? What was the response from the readers of the paper?
MF: Yeah. So, yes, an article came out in the local paper saying that she had been arrested. And I ended up reading the comments, and the comments were just horrendous. It was: She’s a spoiled little brat. She ruined her mom’s career.
And many more vicious sentiments. And it just felt pretty devastating to me, because for so long I hid everything, I’d been so ashamed, and I already felt so much guilt in coming forward then. And then to be so unanimously disbelieved — and, at that point, this article was like a paragraph and a half. It didn’t have any facts of the case. It was literally just like: She was arrested and her daughter is hospitalized.
And so, just the immediate reaction was like: There’s no way. She’s lying, she’s a spoiled brat, this, that, and the other — which looking back at the time I just felt absolutely horrible. I was a teenager and I was in the hospital and I didn’t have any perspective.
But now looking back and rereading that article in the last year and seeing that it virtually had no information. For all the readers could have known, there could have been a videotape of it happening. But they just assumed there’s no way that it could have happened.
RG: And so when you applied for your master’s in social worker or sociology?
MF: Social work.
RG: So you applied for your master’s in social work and there was a question of whether to check the, what I’ve learned is called the FGLI box: first-generation, low-income.
RG: First of all, that’s one box? Or is that — it separates two into one?
MF: Yeah. So normally the term FGLI, it’s just an umbrella term for both. But in this application they had two questions which are to determine financial aid. So one question was: Are you from a low-income family? And then the other question was: Are you the first in your family to attend college?
So they had separated in that case.
RG: And because you were not just low-income, actually no income, other than the jobs that you were working — nobody has complained about the low-income one, right? Am I right about that?
MF: At first there was actually, there was contention. And then throughout the now a year and a half process [laughs] of different sort of invented processes that happened, eventually the university was like: OK, I guess she’s low-income. Yes. She was an independent student when she applied. Fine.
And then the focus shifted to the second box.
RG: Interesting. The fact that they even challenged that really does expose a lot of what’s going on here because I assume in their mind, they’re saying: Well, she went to this private school; she had a nice house; her mom probably drove a nice car — maybe you even drove a decent car! So therefore that doesn’t fit their understanding of low-income, despite the fact that your mother was no longer your legal guardian, you’re a ward of the state. It’s just so obvious that you fit the criteria for low-income, but it seems like they feel like you don’t fit it in the spirit of how they want it. You didn’t grow up in crumbling projects your entire life.
MF: Exactly. Yeah.
RG: And did they say anything along those lines? Is that just an interpretation or did they say anything that suggested to you that the fact that you had gone to a private school and grown up in an upper-middle-class situation meant that you could never at any point consider yourself low-income?
MF: You know, I believe the first people who said that was the Rhodes Trust. And they released this quote-unquote report in April of 2021 with their findings. They had done their own investigation — again, quotes on investigation — and then I had submitted over a hundred pages of documents to them. Medical records, records from child welfare services, corroborating letters from detectives and lawyers and elementary, middle, and high school teachers, childhood friends, professors — basically everyone who had known me. I think there were almost 30 of those letters — again, very similar to who had given statements in the past to corroborate my abuse as well as leaders in the FGLI community saying — yes, we started this community. We started building this, and this is exactly who we built it for. And they were the ones I believe — and this is public now because Penn attached it to their response to the lawsuit I filed — and I believe they were the first ones to mention that I had gone to private school and that they were questioning if I was low-income.
And the theme of private school definitely came up many times over the course of the last year and a half.
MF: And with that, like you said, notion of: Well, there’s no way that you went to private school and all of this could have still happened, or that you could be low-income now and this idea that socioeconomic status is permanent.
RG: Right. Which as I’m sure you’ve learned since is a complete and fundamental misunderstanding of poverty —
RG: — in America. Like, I don’t have the precise statistics in front of me, but if you asked people to guess at the number of people who will experience, say, two years of poverty in their life, people will miss it by magnitudes. It’s practically half of Americans, or more.
RG: Who will spend some significant amount of time in poverty. That’s the reality of it, but we don’t want to think of it that way. We want to think of it as: If you were ever rich, you’re always rich; if you’re ever poor, you’re always poor.
And so that’s the low-income box. Then, the first-generation box. I want to read from The New Yorker article again, it says: “The Web site of Penn First Plus, a university program founded in 2018 to support F.G.L.I. students, defines “first generation” broadly, including students who have a “strained or limited” relationship with a parent who has graduated from college. This definition resembles the one used in the federal Higher Education Act, which says that first-generation status depends on the education level of a parent whom a student ‘regularly resided with and received support from.’”
And then The New Yorker adds in parentheses that a Penn spokesperson says: Yeah, well, that’s not the definition that we use.
RG: So how is a person who is filling out this application supposed to know what definition you’re supposed to use?
MF: That’s a great question. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I mean, so that specific definition wasn’t public until 2018. And I was in a kind of unique situation where I applied to grad school at the beginning of my sophomore year of college, because I sub-matriculated. So I started while I was an undergrad and was taking classes at the same time. But there was another definition that was also along those lines that I fit, that was, again, public on the website.
Our grad school had no specific definitions or instructions, but I did have a relationship with the associate director of admissions at the time. I asked specifically about those boxes and the answer I got was — again, this was multiple years ago, but it was something along the lines of — I don’t think that biological parents are relevant to this. If you’re an independent student, then you should check “yes” to both boxes.
And when I asked her again when I was gathering all this evidence in 2020, she gave me the same answer of: I don’t believe it’s relevant, and this box isn’t relevant to admission. But it’s relevant to financial aid and the student should check whatever box is going to give them most access to financial aid, which would be “yes” to both questions.
RG: And it has, has she stuck by that? Like what does Penn say when you tell them: Hey, the Penn official who helped me fill this out said that these are the categories that I fit.
MF: She, to my knowledge, has stuck by that. I think they have said, well, there’s different definitions and the dean who is the dean of the grad school said: Well, that’s not our definition. And we have our own specific grad school definitions. But those definitions aren’t anywhere to be found. They’re not on a website. So you use what you have, uh, which are the definitions that were already out there.
And, honestly, first-generation is never something I’ve really identified with fully. I identify with the FGLI umbrella term and definitely being a low-income student, but I’ve never really called myself a standalone first-generation. But when you’re filling out a box where it’s “yes” or “no” and there’s no more information or “kind of!” box [laughs], it’s like you have to fit yourself in, saying: Are you the first in your family to attend? And you’re getting instruction from a university official that that’s how you’re supposed to fill it out, that’s what the definition says online. And to me, I’m like I am a household of one, so I am the only person in my family.
So I felt pretty confident. I was like: Great. I have all these three kinds of different rationale and corroborations. I didn’t even really think about it when I checked it, because I felt like I had a lot of information that backed it up.
RG: And what was the first-generation community like on campus? I think [it’s] called Penn First, I believe, and it seems like you socially spent a lot of time with them? What kind of a group is that?
MF: Yeah, so Penn First for the whole FGLI community. So first-generation and/or low-income, again, is the acronym. And again, people, including Penn administrators, have the perception of — I think the stereotype and my friend Anea Moore, who’s a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Penn who founded Penn first — or co-founded — it had a really great quote in The New Yorker about we aren’t all, quote-unquote something along the lines of like impoverished, inner city kids who go to crumbling public schools as the wider media portrays us to be.
And I think that she kind of encompassed a lot of the stereotypes that people, and also the Penn administrators have about what FGLI students are when in reality, those of us who are part of the community know that there’s so many shapes and sizes of FGLI students. Like some students do have a story, more like me where they had some kind of separation from their family; other students their parents were doctors or lawyers or Ph.D. students in other countries, but then they came here and their degrees no longer, essentially, counted or people who are just first-generation and not necessarily low-income or people who are low-income, but not first-generation. There’s people who span all different kinds of experiences. And that is part of what felt like it gave me such a home, is because we had these sort of underlying shared experiences, but all came from different backgrounds to an extent, and all still supported and accepted one another. And that felt very powerful in an institution where the overwhelming majority of people are coming from two-parent households, extremely wealthy, like a whole ‘nother level of wealth that I have really ever seen, in my life in terms of just around me, like the 1 percent to the 0.001 percent. It’s a very different lifestyle. When I came to Penn and saw all of these students who were living that life, there was a sense of community and solidarity amongst us, which was very powerful for me because I just felt so out of place.
RG: And The New Yorker article also alluded to a few things that you had gotten loose with in a couple of paragraphs. I can’t remember if it was in the Rhodes essay or in another essay that, in hindsight, you would’ve tightened up. Like one of them was describing a biological child in a house as another foster child, and something about a half-brother or something.What were those and how were those errors kind of deployed against you?
MF: Yeah, it was, things like that where I simplified all of these foster kids that you’re living with a biological family who have kids, which I would say are foster siblings. And then there’s also foster siblings in the sense of other people who are in the foster care system who you’re living with.
So I kind of simplified that in a sentence to make my point of what I wanted to study, which was the foster-care-to-prison pipeline, which is also what I ultimately ended up doing my Ph.D. on and what I just started this year. So that was what that specific sentence in The New Yorker was referencing is this kind of condensing this group of people and to one sentence
In retrospect, I just honestly wish I had never written about those people, but it was kind of one of those things where I was like: OK, I need to make my point. How do I do that in a succinct way when there’s a very short word count and you’re trying to fit everyone’s experience in?And so I didn’t really think about: Oh, I need to say: This foster sibling who was in the foster care system. And then there was this other foster sibling who was the biological kid of the foster parents I was staying with, and spelling it out in that way.
RG: Mhmm. And so can you talk a little bit about your research? How much research has been done on the foster-care-to-prison-pipeline? Is it as well explored territory as a school-to-prison pipeline? Or is this something that’s been overlooked? And what area of it are you going to explore with your Ph.D.?
MF: Yeah. It’s a very under-researched field. It’s virtually almost an unknown phenomena — or to people who are working in the field, it’s certainly known, but there’s been very little research on it, which partially complicates my Ph.D., because there’s so little to draw upon. But it was definitely something I saw happening sort of this funneling of kids from the child welfare to criminal justice system. And then as the different internships, and then I went to get my master’s in social work and all of this happened, I started to see that continue in different capacities while I was in different roles, seeing that theme in this relationship between foster care and the criminal justice system.
So now I’m looking at one American city and one English city and comparing the experiences of youth who crossed over from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system in both of those cities and kind of how the geopolitical environment and local policies and practices might impact the rate of youth crossing over and their experiences.Then it’s going to be a qualitative study in just really trying to understand their experiences from their voices, which is something that I often find missing from research.
RG: And what’s the difference between the U.S. and English system?
MF: So — [laughs] I feel like I could go on for hours about that. But part of it is funding decisions. Like there is more attention to systemic poverty and trying to keep children in their homes to begin with, I would say, which is important, because if you can keep kids in their homes, then they’re not in the system and facing that foster-to-prison pipeline. And there’s also literature that’s economic literature versus sociology, different fields have different perspectives on what that relationship between foster care and the criminal justice system is and what the causes are. But I think a lot of it stems from the current policies and practices of federal and local funding and what kind of programs they’re funding for kids.
RG: Right. And in the U.S., there is much more pressure to pull kids out of homes, right?
RG: That’s been my understanding of it. Is that your experience with it as well?
MF: Yes, definitely. And especially, again, like these stereotypes of black and brown, low-income families, the knee-jerk reaction is like: Oh, well, they’re unequipped to be a parent. Whereas white parents, a lot of times, it is much harder — the bar is much higher to remove them from their homes because their whiteness or possibly class privilege or whatever identities that they have that might not fit a social worker or judge’s or whoever’s involved perception of whose kids should be in the foster system.
RG: Right. And you experienced that yourself, right? After a teacher reported what they felt was abuse, a social worker came by and your mother was able to just charm the pants off her. And that was the end of it, right?
RG: Right. Whereas a social worker comes into a poor home and looks around and sees just the normal poverty that our system has foisted on people and says: Oh, well, clearly this is somebody that needs to be stripped out of here. How many people kind of fit that category that you interacted with, and how many kind of fit closer to your category, not just in your own interactions, but also in your research?
MF: You know, in my personal experience, there were not very many kids who came from a background like me. There were definitely, I’m sure. I didn’t encounter many of them in the two years that I was living in foster families. Because I’m not under any illusion that I’m the typical foster kid. And that’s again, like not because there isn’t abuse or neglect going on in families that looked like mine, or biological families that looked like mine. It’s, in my opinion, because they get overlooked and the kids like me are kind of rendered invisible by the privileges of our biological families.
So not that I think at all the population of kids who are in foster care is representative of what abuse or neglect and what households they occur or don’t occur in. I think it’s a reflection of the systemic prejudices —
MF: — that we have.
Like you said, there’s also the cultural stereotype of like Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist of what these kinds of kids are supposed to look like that starts so early on in, and deep in the culture or media that we encounter that I think really ingrains that into people.
RG: And so where is your story now? You’re engaged in a lawsuit with Penn. What about Rhodes? And where are you at school? And when will you have finished up your Ph.D.?
MF: Yeah. So the Rhodes Trust ended up after their quote-investigation, and I submitted all the evidence, they ended up still recommending that my scholarship be rescinded, uh, but I had another opportunity to respond to their report, which I absolutely wanted to do. There were some pretty basic errors, such as my name, my birth name, and my birth place, and claiming that I didn’t have a sibling, that I wasn’t low-income, a lot of facts that were pretty easily disputed. And so I was like, of course, I’m going to respond again.
And I ultimately didn’t end up responding because I got a serious threats from Penn that if I didn’t withdraw that they were going to come after my undergrad degree, and launch proceedings to revoke my undergrad degree, and never give me my M.S.W — which I was supposed to graduate with in May 2021, I have not yet received that diploma — if I didn’t withdraw from the Rhodes and sign an NDA. And there was also the added threat that they would report me to the federal government for wire fraud if I didn’t, again, withdraw from the Rhodes and sign this NDA.
RG: Did they make that threat in writing or was that —
MF: They made that threat to —
RG: — or in a phone call?
MF: — verbally. Yes, to my lawyer who communicated it to me. Uh, my lawyer.
RG: That they would forward charges to the federal government of wire fraud.
RG: That was their suggestion?
MF: Yes. That was my understanding.
MF: They have since claimed that that is not what they [laughs] insinuated, I believe my former lawyer spoke to it in The New Yorker piece.
MF: And it’s mentioned briefly. But that was definitely a driving force for why I decided, ultimately, to withdraw because I felt like: OK, federal prison is no joke. And at the time I was more in panic mode than like, let me step back and look at this logically, there’s absolutely no case, this is an intimidation tactic to try to silence me and sign this NDA and withdraw from the Rhodes and agree to whatever terms they wanted me to agree to you.
RG: Yeah. I mean, you’d been taking loss after loss, despite having the facts on your side.
RG: So I could imagine why at some point you’d be like, you know what, I’m just not going to keep taking L’s here.
MF: Yeah. Yeah, I was exhausted.
RG: Nothing I have is persuasive to these people.
MF: And that is, I felt very defeated too. There was also the part of me that was terrified. And then there’s the part that felt like: I have no idea what’s going to convince these people if I gave them medical records, I gave them forensic photos of me taken in the hospital, I gave them again like corroboration from professors of like how I described myself, from leaders in the FIGLY community. Like, it seemed like an airtight case from my perspective. And that’s an unfortunate reality so many survivors experience, not having a lot of documentation. And I’m kind of one of the lucky ones where I had really expansive and thorough documentation for all the parts of this story. And still, it was just like: Nope. We don’t believe you.
And so I did definitely have that kind of like: I have no idea what else is going to convince these people. And even now, The New Yorker quotes a lot from my childhood journals describing my abuse. And Penn is still claiming that those are fake journals. And I’m like: I don’t know what else I could give them that would possibly convince them if their belief is as a 15-year-old, 16-year-old was journaling about my experience of abuse and hiding it in an air vent, and it was actually secretly all a plan to like accuse my mother of abuse and go into foster care so I could have a sad story. That would have to be the rationale that they would have for those childhood journals to be faked.
And I think I just share that because I think it’s a powerful example of if that is as far as they’re going to go when there’s literal documentation from child me and that accusing me of that being faked, I really am like: I don’t know, short of a video montage of instances of abuse from 6 to 16, what would convince them
RG: Well, Mackenzie, thank you so much for joining me and sharing your story.
MF: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. And I’m glad that people are having the kinds of systemic discussions that are so key to all of this.
[End credits theme.]
RG: That was Mackenzie Fierceton and that’s our show.
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