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Mackenzie Fierceton (second left) at a rally in support of FGLI students on Apr 13, 2022. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Approximately 150 members of the Penn community gathered at a campus-wide walkout and rally outside of the School of Social Policy & Practice building today to stand in solidarity with Mackenzie Fierceton and other first-generation, low-income students and survivors of abuse.

The walkout — which took place from 10:45 a.m. to 12 p.m. — was held in response to Fierceton’s two-year-long conflict with University administrators who questioned her status as a FGLI student and survivor of sexual abuse. On April 12, Penn released its hold on Fierceton’s master's of social work degree from SP2. 

At the walkout, protest organizers voiced several demands for Penn’s administration and demanded a formal apology to Fierceton and other survivors of abuse at Penn. They also called for the removal of the permanent sanction on Fierceton’s transcript, the release of the faculty panel members who questioned Fierceton’s abuse, the creation of policies to protect survivors, and the renovation of the SP2 Caster Building — where a graduate student died in 2018. 

Protesters held signs that read “We Believe You." During a march from the Caster Building to Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein’s office at College Hall, protesters participated in chants, including “SP2, shame on you” and “Winkelstein has got to go.” 

Winkelstein led the University’s inquiry into Fierceton’s upbringing in Fall 2020 after receiving an anonymous tip that Fierceton was dishonest about her history of abuse and FGLI status. Winkelstein also sent a letter to the Rhodes Trust questioning whether Fierceton was honest in her application for the Rhodes Scholarship, which was awarded to her in 2021.

Seven Penn students and alumni, including Fierceton, delivered speeches about Penn’s history of abuse to its survivor and FGLI populations.

Kay McGuffin, an SP2 alumna and organizer of the walkout, condemned the University for using its power against its most vulnerable student populations. 

“Once you do something that the University sees as undermining its quest for power and prestige, it will not think twice about discarding you, humiliating you, and retaliating against you, which is exactly what they did,” McGuffin said. 

Fierceton thanked protesters for showing up and demanding justice at the end of the rally. She called on Penn’s administration to advocate and accommodate for all FGLI students, particularly communities of color; however, she said the rally’s purpose is intended to span far beyond Penn’s campus. 

“My point of sharing my story is that it’s so much bigger than me,” Fierceton said. “This is what it looks like when institutions abuse and silence and try to shame survivors. This happens in industries, universities, societies, and countries, and I don’t want that to get lost in one sad story and one bad school.” 

Other speakers at the walkout included 2019 College graduate Aiden Omar Castellanos-Pedroza, master's in social work candidate Sarah Pallivalapil-Karerat, and fourth-year Nursing BSN-Ph.D. candidate Candy Greczylo who said they have been directly impacted by Penn’s poor treatment of FGLI students. 

Castellanos-Pedrosa shared their experiences with Penn’s harmful treatment of FGLI students, recounting his first weeks at Penn as a pre-firstyear. 

They described their experience at a “privilege walk” activity at a pre-orientation program, in which students were instructed to keep their eyes closed while they listened to privileges being called out. Students took a step forward when a privilege they had was called out, and they took a step back when it was a privilege they did not. 

“It didn’t matter to me, honestly, whether or not I took a step up or back because at the end of it, I was still the only person all the way at the far f**king back,” Castellanos-Pedrosa said. "Afterwards, the rich white student leaders, the people who had organized [the activity] in the first place, had the audacity to congratulate me for being there.”  

McGuffin advised current Penn students to join organizations that fight for the justice they wish to see in their communities. She urged protesters to continue organizing for Fierceton, FGLI students, and underrepresented communities at Penn, in West Philadelphia, and in the greater Philadelphia area. 

“What the school, what the [administration] actually cares about is masses of students demanding things, and the best way to do that is get organized, find your people, come together, and demand stuff,” McGuffin said.