Mackenzie Fierceton (right), a former Penn student, joined supporters at a rally at the university on Wednesday

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The University of Pennsylvania’s Locust Walk wasn’t dominated by clusters of students skipping class to play frisbee or picnic in the near-summer weather Wednesday afternoon.

Instead, one chant rang loud and clear: “Walk your talk.”

The rallying cry came from at a demonstration in support of Mackenzie Fierceton, the Penn grad and onetime Rhodes scholar whose story sparked outrage after the university administration questioned her experiences as a foster youth and sexual violence survivor.

Organized by a coalition of undergraduates, social work graduate students, and alumni, the protest brought out dozens of people — including Fierceton herself.

“It is never okay to punish a survivor for what they’ve experienced,” organizer and current social work graduate student Sarah Pallivalapil-Karerat told the crowd. “They not just deny Mackenzie’s truth, extending the abuse of her childhood, they also enacted their own. Penn minimized, denied and blamed. Penn humiliated her.”

MORE: Penn releases hold on master’s degree for student at center of controversy over university mistreatment of trauma victims

An investigation published earlier this month by The New Yorker detailed the ongoing dispute between Fierceton and the Ivy League university, which charged her with misrepresenting her status as a first-generation, low-income student. Fierceton denied these claims and provided medical and family court records, plus testimony from 26 people in her life. According to the article, after the university received a tip from Fierceton’s mom, her alleged abuser, Penn imposed a $4,000 fine and decided to withhold her master’s degree until she submitted a letter of apology.

Penn rescinded the fine a few months ago, and on Tuesday it agreed to release the hold on Fierceton’s master’s degree. University administration continues to deny any alleged wrongdoing, and has yet to remove a punitive notation on her transcript.

“I’m unclear if there’s still going to be a black mark, and I think that’s unacceptable,” Fierceton told Billy Penn at the rally. “But I’m really looking forward to seeing the people that are here, students and community members, pushing for what it takes to see change.”

Penn students rallied in support of Mackenzie Fierceton Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Students and activists are less optimistic about Penn’s sudden decision to confer Fierceton’s degree.

“For them to release that news yesterday, I think it was a pretty deliberate effort to disband the protest,” grad student Pallivalapil-Karerat said. “But I also think it shows that embarrassing the university works.”

Saying Fierceton’s story illuminates other systemic issues at Penn, protesters outlined two separate sets of demands. First, that the university:

  • apologize directly to Fierceton
  • create protection mechanisms for students undergoing investigations
  • more clearly define what it means to be a first-generation, low-income student on campus

They’re also asking that the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) remove any permanent sanctions and reveal the names of faculty who recommended that Fierceton formally apologize.

These requests dovetail with a new online petition drafted by the rally’s organizers.

Asked if Fierceton supported the demands, Serena Martinez, a Penn undergraduate who helped draft the petition, was unequivocal. “We would’ve never moved forward without ensuring the survivor was informed,” Martinez said.

Penn alum Kay McGuffin (top of steps), spoke out against the school and in support of Mackenzie Fierceton Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

At the rally, which took place around lunchtime, several speakers touched on enduring institutional flaws. The rally took place in front of the Castor building, where SP2 graduate student Cameron Driver died in 2018 and is now involved in a wrongful death lawsuit.

First-generation, low-income students and graduates took the stage to address disparities in resources at Penn, and the campus’s generally tone death culture around wealth and trauma. About 15% of the university’s most recent classes identify as first generation or low-income, but students have reported a lack of financial support, exclusionary policies, and challenging social stigmas.

“We as low income folks feel as though we need to lay out our whole life stories sometimes just to prove that we deserve the same things that others already had the means and access to,” said one Penn alum who met Fierceton at a pre-orientation program. “We are fucking tired of having to scream to be listened to.”

The protest organizers say they’re planning future actions. Kay McGuffin, a 2019 SP2 graduate who helped organize the demonstration, encouraged Philadelphians to “not trust this institution,” while Pallivalapil-Karerat challenged students to harness their bargaining power.

“As students, we’re the paying customers here. We’re the future alumni they’re going to be seeking donations from, so we are the most powerful,” Pallivalapil-Karerat said.

Fierceton wanted people to know that while this has irrevocably hurt her, it isn’t just about her.

“We need to show up for people of all identities, not just a white woman,” Fierceton told the crowd. “I hope we keep doing that.”

Students at the University of Pennsylvania rallied in support of Mackenzie Fierceton Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY