OPINION | Universities must stop fetishizing trauma

Apoorva Verghese, Senior Staff Columnist

Maggie Pasterz

In 2020, Mackenzie Fierceton, a first-generation low-income student studying at the University of Pennsylvania, received a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Her application, as well as her college career in general, painted the picture of a former foster child dedicated to changing the system that she had been a part of. 

Soon after she won the scholarship, however, details about her life started coming into question, and all of a sudden her university turned against her and is now withholding her degree

Why? Because they argue that Fierceton fabricated her trauma. The truth, however, is not so simple. Fierceton did not make up her life and struggle, rather UPenn refused to accept that her complex story and background was a part of the intricate fabric of poverty in the U.S. 

Fierceton’s story began gaining attention after The New Yorker released a piece detailing her experience dealing with UPenn. 

Fierceton’s case is quite complex and deserves full attention, but looking at the big picture, her story raises significant issues about the worth of marginalized students in high power institutions like UPenn. 

It’s not unusual for institutions to romanticize narratives of struggle or oppression, typically in some attempt to uplift their own image. It is also not necessarily wrong that Fierceton’s university, as well as the Rhodes Trust, found value in her narrative. We should all be striving to uplift untold stories, including ones like Fierceton’s. 

The problem in this specific case, is that UPenn as an institution intertwined Fierceton and her narrative so much that the second her background was brought into question, she was no longer seen as a valued student. 

Without her trauma, she didn’t matter. 

This case raises an important question about the way institutions treat students who have gone through various struggles in their life. How much does one have to suffer to have value? 

Fierceton describes the way UPenn embraced her story before turning against her as an example of poverty porn, a fetishization of people living in impoverished conditions typically done for the entertainment or moral uplifting of an audience. 

The fetishization of people in troubling conditions is nothing new. For years, charitable organizations have been using disturbing imagery, often of developing nations and non-white people, to invoke some sort of empathy in its viewers. 

This sort of campaigning alone has several ethical issues, but the real issue with poverty porn is the way it assigns value to people based solely on their struggles. In Fierceton’s case, her life did not match the stereotypical ideas of first-generation low-income students that they expected, and for that reason they chose to persecute her. 

Fierceton’s case, though a fascinating and troubling look into institutional exploitation of students, is not isolated. These are clear examples of people putting their trauma on show specifically because they do not believe an institution will find worth in them otherwise. 

Institutions, specifically universities, may not vocalize these ideas, but the way that students from backgrounds like Fierceton are treated once they are accepted sends a clear message. Students are then expected to be representatives, express their gratitude to donors and administrators for giving them an opportunity and share their story in a way that paints the institution in the best light possible. 

Yes, it may be true that institutions like UPenn give students like Fierceton opportunities because of their story, but that does not mean her narrative is theirs for the taking. Nor is she obligated to meet their expectations of her. 

There’s no reason why institutions can’t support people from traumatic backgrounds without exploiting their narrative.

People marginalized along dimensions of class, race, gender or anything else deserve to be in control of their lives and that includes the representations of themselves they want to show. When institutions like UPenn decide that these narratives are theirs for the taking, it creates a devastating exploitative system that harms students as much as it claims to benefit them. Unless institutions start creating systems that benefit students, not just for the sake of their own advancement, marginalized students will never have control of their stories.