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  • Reverend James Squire


Updated: Feb 13, 2021

Tocqueville, in his book on American democracy published in 1835, reflected that at America’s core is a belief that a person’s fate lies in each individual’s hands. It is why American’s love stories of achievement against all odds. Think Rocky! Amy Gutman, President of Penn, announced with great excitement that one of Penn’s students, MacKenzie Fierceton,’21 received a Rhodes Scholarship. But this wasn’t any regular achiever. According to the “Penn News Release” and an article in the Inquirer, November 24, 2020 by Joe Holleman, she was like no other. She was among the first in her family to go to college as a low-income student. She was queer. She bounced from one foster home to another throughout her life.

During her junior year in high school, she was in a toxic foster home where she had to live on friends’ couches for weeks at a time. Only 2% of foster children graduate from a four-year college. So how did she not only graduate from college but achieve one of the highest awards given?

I believe that the answer is found in a statement she made after receiving the Rhodes Scholarship. “I would have traded all of this to have been adopted and have a family and have had that experience and that never happened. I have healed from all of that, and I can carry it with me now in a way that feels very empowering. She was fiercely passionate in her pursuit of knowledge. It is where she found joy! Teachers and schools were her family. She will give back to her community as she seeks a Ph. D. in Social Policy from Oxford University.

She made it because she was “fierce”. She couldn’t have a better last name to coincide with her passion for reading, learning, and knowledge. I am not using the word, fierce, as “ferocious aggressiveness” but as it is sometimes defined as “a heartfelt and powerful intensity”. I would call it “passion plus for learning” in Ms. MacKenzie’s life. For me, learning is the way out and up from the conditions in which we were born. It is the great equalizer which is why I worry about students who don’t have the opportunity to participate in learning during this pandemic for lack of resources. That must be addressed if we will keep the dream alive.

Being first in your family to attend college is really a big deal, for as Frank Molina, ‘21 University of California San Francisco, a first generation student, put it, ”Oftentimes being a first-gen student is cast in a negative light, as if we are missing something because we are the first to go to college. Instead, I think that first-gen students have so much to offer. They have much resourcefulness and tenacity from having to do so much on their own.” As someone who was one of those first generation in a family to attend college, I can underscore the importance of what Ms. Fierce has done and what Mr. Molina has said.

I don’t know how religion plays any role in the life of first-generation students, but for me, it did in a curious way! When I was in high school, I had a portrait of “Christ Our Pilot” hung over my desk. I looked at it every time I sat down to work, even when I could hear friends outside playing ball and part of me wanting very much to join them. It pictured a muscled youth with his hands gripping a wheel on a ship in a storm. Behind him with a hand on his shoulder and the other pointing forward was the image of Jesus. There were times when I would drift off while studying to look at the painting.

During this Pandemic when we are asking so many questions about a vaccine, we should be asking with fierce intensity what we can do to give young people another life-giving dose of an ingredient for their future, excitement about learning. I am concerned for those first generation low income students who could potentially be bound for more learning when they leave the home. It is their way out and up. Not enough has been said nationally about MacKenzie Fierceton, Rhodes Scholar, who was a product of enormous challenges of foster care. She could inspire. Who could forget what is needed for that kind of achievement with a name like Fierceton. I can hear that Rocky music playing in the background.

I first met Amy Gutman when she was teaching at Princeton’s Ethical Center which she founded. I was attempting to form a relationship with her program and one that would occur at Episcopal Academy. She had another event, however, come into her life at that time as she became President of Penn in 2004. She has always been an incredible leader. The first thing that she did at Penn was to start a program for first generation lower income college students. When she arrived, 1 out of 20 students were part of that initiative. Today 1 out of 8 are part of that program.

By the way, Amy Gutman is a first generation college student as well who went to Radcliffe College at Harvard on a scholarship. Go figure!

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