Mackenzie Fierceton’s Story: What Makes a Student a Wily Scholar?

Mackenzie Fierceton is the child of a doctor who attended a private prep school in a wealthy suburb. She also called herself a first-generation low-income student. 

But Mackenzie Fierceton is not a liar. She is a student who found herself in a complex and easily-misunderstood situation: working towards her degree without support from family. 

Just as Mackenzie’s story was misunderstood, what makes a student a Wily Scholar can also be misunderstood.

Mackenzie was placed in foster care as a high school senior because she was experiencing domestic abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. She earned a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where she found a community at Penn First, a campus organization for first-generation low-income students. She felt: “These are my people. There was commonality in the fact that a lot of us had different relationships with home or family.”

Wily Scholars also have a variety of relationships with home and family. In fact, if Mackenzie had attended a Boston-area school for undergrad, she would have qualified to be a Wily Scholar. 

When Mackenzie was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2020, the media used her membership in Penn First to characterize her as a first-generation low-income student. Though at first Penn leaned in to this narrative, the school eventually decided that Mackenzie was lying about her upbringing. Her Rhodes Scholarship was rescinded and masters degree in social work withheld. Last month, the New Yorker published an article about Penn’s disciplinary actions against Mackenzie titled: How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student.* 

*Please note that the article contains detailed descriptions of events that may be triggering to readers, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and the mistreatment of abuse survivors.

There are several reasons Mackenzie considered herself a first-generation student. One is that by many definitions, as a foster alum, she was one. As Mackenzie explained it, “when you are in foster care, your legal guardian is the state…I was considered the only generation at this point.” Both Penn First and the federal Higher Education Act consider Mackenzie to be a first-generation student for this same reason.

The university is so focussed on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box.

Anthony Jack, Harvard Graduate School of Education

More importantly, though, Mackenzie characterized herself first-generation because she identified with the label. After the abuse she experienced, she did not consider herself to have parents. As Harvard professor Anthony Jack put it, “the university is so focussed on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box.”

The New Yorker called Mackenzie’s story “more complex than institutional categories for disadvantage could capture.” Many Wily Scholars stories are in that place too. Mackenzie and Wily Scholars belong to a unique group of students on campus. They overlap with first-generation low-income students, but have more complicated and less supportive ties with family than many of their first-gen low-income peers. Their relationships with their families and their relationships with labels may feel ambiguous, and may change over time. 

Scholars may have no contact with their families, or may return to unstable or unsafe homes over school breaks to care for younger siblings. Scholars may not desire any change in their relationships with their families, or may be hopeful that those relationships will move in a more positive direction. Students do not have to fit into any one specific narrative to be a Wily Scholar. What makes a Wily Scholar is a student who, like Mackenzie, is working toward their degree without emotional and financial support from family.