PHILADELPHIA — 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.

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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.

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

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(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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