Penn student Mackenzie Fierceton was selected as one of 32 American recipients of the 2021 Rhodes Scholarship, becoming Penn's 31st Rhodes scholar since the scholarship's inception in 1902.
Fierceton, a 2020 College graduate, is currently working on her clinical master's degree in social work at Penn's School of Social Policy & Practice. Upon completion of the program this spring, Fierceton, who is the sixth Rhodes scholar from Penn in the last four years, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social policy at the University of Oxford beginning in fall 2021. The prestigious scholarship provides funding for up to four years of study at Oxford.
Fierceton will conduct research on the foster care-to-prison pipeline, representing a disproportionate risk of incarceration for young people in foster care. Her research will analyze how welfare divisions and social policy in the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway affect the incarceration rates of children in foster care. As a foster youth herself, Fierceton said the issue is a personal one.
"I have seen this process of youth being shuttled from the foster system to the criminal justice system over and over again to people I know," she said. "This is something really close to my heart, and I just feel really privileged to go and do this work because no one else is going to do it."
Upon graduating from Oxford, Fierceton plans to return to the United States to work in the Philadelphia community to influence policy regarding the foster care system.
“Committed to research and advocacy to make a positive impact in the world, Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity to build upon her Penn education and experience,” Penn President Amy Gutmann told Penn Today. “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.”
While pursuing her masters degree in social work at SP2, Fierceton worked part-time at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia as a social worker and works directly with young people who have been or are currently incarcerated.
"Every time I walk out of a session with them, it just does not feel like it is enough," Fierceton said. "I know that they are going to go home and not have enough to eat, or not have access to healthcare, or be re-arrested because that is how the system is set up. It leaves me with this feeling of 'how do we change this on a systemic level?' I love the work I am doing now, but I just feel like we need more."
Her time working alongside second-term City Councilmember and 1993 College graduate Helen Gym as a policy advisor while pursuing her master's degree in social work has helped guide her interest in potentially working in policymaking in the future.
Fierceton hopes that she can help work on a local level to improve youth justice and child welfare policies. She added that she would either like to start her own organization or work in the federal government to create more policies to benefit foster youth.
As an undergraduate student, Fierceton majored in political science and was a civic scholar as part of the Civic House's four-year program, which features public interest internships, seminars, and a capstone project for a cohort of 10 to 15 undergraduate students per class. She also served as a leader of PennCORP, a first-year pre-orientation program focused on addressing social justice issues through volunteer work, workshops and discussion.
Fierceton said that she was shocked upon learning that she had won the Rhodes scholarship, and is both honored and proud of the feat, particularly as a foster youth.
"There are only 2% of foster youth that graduate college and while most of us want to go, it is just systematically so rare that anyone gets to have a voice or a platform," she said. "As a foster youth myself, I genuinely feel like I am here for all of us."