CW: Mentions of death, sexual assault, blood

In the aftermath of an international controversy that resulted in her withdrawal from the Rhodes Scholarship, UPenn graduate and current DPhil student Mackenzie Fierceton recently broke her silence through a longform piece published in The New Yorker. Fierceton’s account has garnered international attention and underscores the necessity of further accountability within educational institutions. 

The Oxford Blue Editors-in-Chief Nidhi Bhaskar and Ellee Su interviewed Mackenzie in the aftermath of her story’s release to discuss her reflections on public response to the New Yorker article and her motivations going forward.  

How has student life in Oxford been so far?

My time at Oxford has been wonderful thus far. It has been terrific to meet new people from all corners of the world, who have all been so full of passion and kindness. The people I’ve met have created a home away from home. I’ve loved making new friends through my college, department, and other activities, and feel very grateful to be here.

How are you feeling post the publication of the New Yorker article? 

I have felt a tremendous sense of freedom since publication of the article. I have found that when I share, I heal, and the process of telling my story has been extremely liberating. Powerful people and institutions weaponize shame to make us believe that silence benefits us more than speaking out. That is not the case. Shame is a lie they told us, and sharing my story felt like stepping out of the shame and silence that’s been forced upon me for so long.

Do you think that the events leading up to the start of your sociology PhD has affected your experience in any way?

When I was accepted to my programme, I asked to meet remotely with my potential supervisor. We had a long conversation about what had occurred in the months leading up to my acceptance because I wanted to be transparent about what was going on before accepting my offer of admission. He, my other supervisor, and the faculty, staff, and students in the department have been extremely supportive. School has always been an outlet for me, so the events of the last year have only fueled the passion for my DPhil project, which seeks to understand the lived experiences of young people who have been in the care system and justice system.

You filed a lawsuit against Penn in December 2021, ‘accusing it of retaliating against [you] and discrediting [you] “for Penn’s institutional protection.” ‘ (quotation from The New Yorker) — how is this process going?

Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment further since the litigation is ongoing, but I look forward to the truth continuing to come to light.

The New Yorker article mentions a wrongful death lawsuit that you were previously involved in. Do you think that your involvement in this lawsuit affected your relationship with Penn prior to the situation surrounding the Rhodes Scholarship controversy? Could you provide a brief context as to your involvement in this, and what you hope will be the outcome of the lawsuit and of the ensuing advocacy?

Same as above, but the article provides a good overview of my involvement in the wrongful death lawsuit. I will add that my classmate who lost his life, Cameron Driver, deserves justice.

So your social-work degree — is that your masters that you did at Penn? — is it still being withheld? The appeals panel requires you to submit a letter of apology, what do you think you will do?

Yes, that is a master’s in social work (MSW) I did at Penn. Two weeks ago, I was told that my final appeal had been denied, so my degree will be released only if I write a letter of apology. The only people who are owed an apology are myself and all survivors.

The New Yorker article has garnered a lot of interest both locally and globally. What have you found has been the response to your account since the article was published?

The response has been one of unwavering and overwhelming support. I’ve received hundreds of messages from survivors and allies around the world, and it has been exceptionally powerful to hear that the story made them feel seen, heard, and believed. At the very least, every survivor deserves that.

I’d also add that it was the resilience and courage of the survivors who came before me that helped me realise I have the power to make others listen. They fought so hard, risked so much, pushed the bounds which society confined them to. They made it possible not just for me to tell my story, but for others to hear and believe it.

Could you please elaborate on your media ban; when did it lift and what’s your plan going forward? 

I decided to go public with my story in early August, and began working with Rachel Aviv, the author of the New Yorker article shortly after. It felt important to commit to a longform piece so that the nuances of my story could be unpacked and explored. I agreed that, aside from a briefer piece I’d already agreed to, I would not pursue other press until her piece was published. It was important to me that the story be told in full and for her to be the one to tell it first.

You mentioned that you were deleting social media except for your Twitter. Do you want to focus on handling this situation more privately; how do you hope to use your platform going forward?

I feel that it’s important to have my voice heard publicly, which is why I decided to choose Twitter as a public platform to continue sharing my story. Our generation has grown up with so many social media platforms (and I have all of them) so I decided for my own wellbeing, I needed to focus on one for now.

What would you like to tell us about your story? We’ve read the Chronicle article and TNY article — is there anything that you would like the students of Oxford to know?

There are a few things I want to say, primarily to other survivors. Survivors of sexual abuse, or abuse of any kind, do not need to hide our faces in shame. I refuse to let any institution shame me into silence or submission. There is tremendous power in survivors sharing our stories, in refusing to let our stories be discarded or disbelieved. It is 2022. We are survivors. We will not be shamed, we will not be silenced.

Your story has garnered reporting from a number of different angles and news outlets. Would you like to provide comments on the previous reports of your story that have come out other than the New Yorker article both at Oxford and in international outlets?

The truth doesn’t change, no matter how hard people and institutions of power try to manipulate it. This kept me grounded in the eight months of Rachel’s investigation, and in the week of tabloids. The reaction of the tabloids is not surprising as they are a reflection of the shame, disbelief, and silencing that survivors across the world experience. Nevertheless, the paradigms they uphold and embolden are an attack on all survivors. They perpetuate the mentality of, “What was she wearing? How much did she drink? What box did she check? How much blood was in her hair?” It was particularly disappointing to see other Oxford publications parrot the sentiments of those tabloids. Their behaviour was harmful to all survivors at Oxford and contribute to the reasons survivors, particularly on university campuses, do not come forward.

In your personal reflections regarding your story (as posted on your personal media outlets), you have compared yourself to well-known cases that have pioneered the #MeToo movement. Have you reached out to any of these people? What similarities do you see in you/your telling of your story with the stories of these individuals?

I wouldn’t compare myself to those survivors because every story is unique, and they have each pioneered the #MeToo movement in different and extraordinary ways. Their names deserve to be known and heard, as does mine and every survivor who wishes to be known.

I’m deeply grateful for the outreach I’ve received from other survivors and leaders of #MeToo. They’ve all provided such deep compassion, support, and wisdom. Chanel Miller said something particularly powerful in her book that I’ve held on to. She said, “Know your truth. Hold on to your truth. It will carry you where you need to go.”

Would you want your name to be used as a hashtag or a symbol of the #MeToo movement going forward? 

It’s important that a variety of people’s stories are centred moving forward. I am exceptionally grateful that my story can contribute to the greater conversation surrounding sexual violence and abuse. And it’s also important that others, particularly those from marginalised communities, have their voices centred as we push forward in this movement.

Why did you agree to do this interview with us today?

I’ve been extremely impressed by The Oxford Blues commitment to journalistic integrity and their allyship with survivors. I wanted to do my interview with a student newspaper that embodies those values and who can generate awareness in our university community of the story I’m telling.

Future actions? What accountability for UPenn would you like to see?

I will continue to advocate for accountability and change within Penn and more broadly. Unfortunately, the actions of the institutions involved here are not an exception. It is not just ‘one sad story’ or ‘one bad institution’. This story is emblematic of the experiences all survivors share, regardless of institution, region, or country. There needs to be accountability for every one of them, and for the broader culture which allows their actions to continue.