Mackenzie Fierceton grew up poor, cycling through the rocky child welfare system. She bounced from one foster home to the next. One home, during her junior year of high school, was so “toxic” and crammed with other foster kids that she left for weeks at a time, sleeping each night on a carousel of couches at the homes of various friends, she said.

“It was a very challenging and isolating experience,” Fierceton said. “At my school, everyone kind of knew me as like the foster kid who all these bad things had happened to.”

She poured herself into her studies.

“School was always an outlet because I never felt like I had any control over my home life or any other part of my life,” Fierceton recalled during an interview Sunday. “It was always kind of my thing, like, `I’m just going to bury my head in books and work really hard.’ Also, I loved learning and it was genuinely a joyful thing for me.”

On Saturday, at about 4 p.m., that joy burned even brighter as she learned that she was named a Rhodes Scholar. Fierceton, a 23-year-old University of Pennsylvania student, beat out more than 2,300 applicants from across the country to win the highly competitive and prestigious award, according to the Rhodes Trust.

The postgraduate award allows recipients to study for free at Oxford University in England. Fierceton is one of only 32 American Rhodes Scholars who will begin studying at Oxford in 2021.

“We are extremely proud of Penn’s newest Rhodes Scholar,” President Amy Gutmann said in a statement. “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.”

Fierceton grew up mostly in St. Louis but currently lives in Philadelphia. After arriving at Penn in 2016, she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. She is currently completing a clinical master’s degree in social work. At Oxford, she plans to examine how welfare policies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway impact the number of teens who go from foster care to the criminal justice system — and how to reverse that trend, particularly for young people of color.

“Statistics show that only 2% of foster youth graduate from four-year universities and most also do not even graduate from high school,” Fierceton said. “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. And obviously when you add on that most foster youth are of color, are low-income, and have a variety of health-care and mental health-care challenges, it all compounds.”

As a product of the foster care system, Fierceton said she carries a degree of grief and pain that will always be a part of her, no matter her academic accomplishments.

“I would trade all of this to have been adopted and have a family and have had that experience and that never happened, and that’s really sad,” she said. “But I also feel like I’ve healed from that to the extent that I can, and I carry it with me now in a way that feels very empowering.”

During her interview, one of the Rhodes Scholar judges asked how she thought the U.S. Supreme Court should rule in a pending case that will settle whether the City of Philadelphia can require Catholic foster care agencies to consider placing children with same-sex couples.

Fierceton, who identifies as queer and hopes to adopt children, said her answer came easy: “I wouldn’t have wanted to be adopted by people who wouldn’t have loved me, regardless of my sexuality, or to be adopted through an agency that wouldn’t provide anyone — of any sexuality — the opportunity to adopt me or any child.”

Fierceton is one of two Rhodes Scholars selected from the Philadelphia region this round. The other is Victoria Puglia, a senior at Lafayette College, where she is majoring in international studies. Puglia, a dual U.S.-Spanish citizen from the Netherlands, is working on a project that looks at malnutrition in Sub-Saharan African refugee settlements, according to Lafayette.

Victoria Puglia, a senior at Lafayette College in Easton, is one of only 32 students across the country chosen as a Rhodes Scholar.
Courtesy of Lafayette College
Victoria Puglia, a senior at Lafayette College in Easton, is one of only 32 students across the country chosen as a Rhodes Scholar.

“We are incredibly proud of Victoria,” Lafayette President Alison R. Byerly said in a statement on Sunday. “This award is a testament not only to her past academic achievements, but also to her commitment to having an impact on the world in the years to come.”

Puglia is only the second student from Lafayette, located in the Lehigh Valley, to receive a Rhodes Scholarship. The first was a 1911 graduate of the liberal arts college in Easton.

Fierceton is the 31st Penn student to be chosen as a Rhodes Scholar since the distinguished program’s start in 1902.

Given the pandemic, Rhodes Scholar judges interviewed candidates over Zoom. On Saturday afternoon, Fierceton said she found herself in a Zoom meeting for several hours with 10 other finalists from this region. They gathered awkwardly in a video room while waiting for call-back interviews and for the judges to deliberate, she said.

Fierceton said she passed the time by knitting a rainbow-colored scarf for the 9-year-old girl whom she babysits, eating snacks, and holding a solo “dance party,” while staying close to her computer from an apartment in East Falls. She danced to “This is Me,” from the movie The Greatest Showman.

Finally, one of the judges announced that they’d finished deliberations and would announce the winners in 15 minutes, she said.

“We were all just like, `Oh my goodness, can you just call us back and tell us already?,’ ” she said. “Then everyone turned off their cameras and I was like, `OK, I have time to dance to one more song.’ ” She chose “I Got You” by James Brown.

She said she didn’t know how to react when they announced her name on Zoom in front of the other candidates. “I didn’t want to seem gloat-y, but I wanted to look happy. I was kind of sitting there and I put my hand over my mouth.” On mute, she mouthed “thank you.”

Then she turned off her computer and cried.

“I actually just sat there for a moment and I am not a super-emotional person, but I just kind of like burst into tears by myself in my room,” Fierceton said. “I really did feel like every step of the way that I was here because of my foster siblings and all of my foster peers and I was here for all of us. It was just like this moment where it hit me, `Someone is finally listening to us, they’re finally hearing us and seeing us and care about what happens to us.’ ”

Then she called her mentor, Elizabeth Cannon, senior associate director at Penn’s Civic House, which serves as the university’s hub for student-led civic engagement.

“It’s the best news of 2020,” Cannon said Sunday afternoon. “Mackenzie is just one of those people who has deep relationships with the people that she cares about, and so when she has a success, I think everybody feels it in really powerful ways.”

“She is going to do big things in this world so the world better be ready for her,” Cannon said.

Fierceton also called one of her closest friends, 23-year-old Ayah El-Fahmawi, who said she met Fierceton at the Civic House when she was a sophomore at Penn. In summer 2019, Fierceton traveled home with El-Fahmawi for her older sister’s wedding in Jordan. Though El-Fahmawi’s family doesn’t speak English and Fierceton doesn’t understand Arabic, El-Fahmawi said her relatives all remarked: “Mackenzie, you can just see the sunshine in her.”

El-Fahmawi said Fierceton is very sensitive to people of color and especially wants to help teens in the foster care system who are disproportionately impacted in life by their race.

“She hopes to make these opportunities for other people, too,” El-Fahmawi said. “It’s just really reflective of her character that even as someone who’s overcome so much to get to the point where she’s at, she thinks of everyone else.”