Retraction: A Bridge story on a student accepted at Harvard turns out to be a hoax

Bridge Magazine is retracting a June 27 article about an 18-year-old student from Detroit who won a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University.

The teen now admits she forged a letter from the university indicating she was accepted to enroll in the university for the fall semester. She misled teachers, family and friends for months, the teen admitted in an email to Bridge on Friday.

The student wrote that she spread the falsehood after being denied admission to Harvard and other prestigious schools.  

“I am not stating any of this to justify my wrong actions but rather to apologize for my misdoings. I apologize to all those who were so happy and congratulatory towards me,” she wrote.

Bridge Magazine removed the initial story from its website on Thursday and is not naming the teen because several friends, family and others expressed concern about her emotional well-being and future.

The initial story detailed how the teen persevered after missing 60 days of school over three years due to chronic asthma as well as transportation problems related to her family’s poverty. A teacher and neighbor confirmed to Bridge they drove her to school for weeks because her family had no operating vehicle.

Bridge first learned of the teen’s accomplishment through a person with ties to her school, University Prep Science and Math in Detroit, which repeatedly and publicly celebrated her supposed admission to Harvard throughout the spring.

The teen showed officials at the school an emailed copy of the forged admission letter. A program given to guests at the high school’s June 10 graduation included a photo of the teen and indicated she would attend Harvard.  

School officials said the teen was a top student, inspiration and ambassador for the school, which is why they are so shocked.

“There was no reason for us to question it. This girl is a really good girl,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of U Prep Schools, which consists of seven charter school campuses in Detroit.

“This has made me question everything. We are re-evaluating our process to see if there’s a better way,” he said.

The student’s story began to unravel soon after it was published in Bridge. The teen said in the article she did not plan to enroll at the Ivy League school until the second semester next school year because she needed to save money for the move.

When dozens of readers offered to raise money, Bridge contacted the family again and learned new information. Now, the family said the teen planned to attend a college in Michigan in the fall and transfer to Harvard later.

That prompted further scrutiny of the teen’s Harvard acceptance letter, a copy of which the student provided to Bridge before the initial story.

The review showed the seven-paragraph letter had the wrong address for the Harvard admissions office and incorrect information about the number of applicants for the 2017-2018 school year.

Bridge did not contact Harvard before the initial article. After publication, Harvard officials said the university does not publicly comment on whether a student is accepted into an incoming class.

In response to questions from Bridge, the student’s mother examined her daughter’s computer and discovered the acceptance letter to Harvard was forged. The student also lied to her mother and Bridge about being accepted to Yale University, her mother said.

Her mother tearfully apologized for her daughter’s behavior in an interview at their home Friday, stressing that she never accepted any donations. She said the family will soon contact school officials and friends to tell them the truth.

“It was your call that prompted all this, for me to go looking into it,” the student’s mother, Tosha People, who has a different last name, told Bridge. “I grabbed her laptop and said, ‘OK, what gives?’”

“It’s a lie. She didn’t get in. … When I saw that, my heart broke. I’m like, why?”

Hours after the Friday interview, the teenager sent the letter admitting the lie to Bridge.

“When we later learned this student had fabricated a Harvard admission form, it felt like a gut punch,” said Bridge Editor David Zeman. “We thought we had confirmed the foundation of the story through the student, and through her high school.

“In hindsight, there were small warning bells, which we failed to heed. We need to be accountable to our readers when we fall short. But we also need to draw lessons from this to guide our future reporting. And we will.”

Kathleen Culver, director the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Bridge should have better scrutinized the teen’s story.

“If at second glance, the acceptance letter looked like a forgery, maybe it should have set off alarms the first time,” she said.

Culver said Bridge’s reporting “seemed pretty decent” because it included multiple sources who confirmed the girl’s account and repeated her lie. Feel-good stories often don’t include the same level of scrutiny as hard news ones, though, because reporters “want them to be true,” she said.

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Sat, 07/01/2017 - 9:44am

I am glad you came clean on this and admitted that you were deceived, these things happen from time to time.

Inner City Teacher
Sat, 07/01/2017 - 12:33pm

A good mea culpa would be a story on the severe attendance issues faced by high poverty schools.

Someone close
Sat, 07/01/2017 - 2:02pm

I'm hurt to be finding out like this, but im glad that this lie didnt go to far where something worse could have happened.

Sean Work
Sat, 07/01/2017 - 3:11pm

Thank you for your commitment to accountability. It's always rough when you find out someone straight up lied to you.

amy kerr hardin
Sat, 07/01/2017 - 4:34pm

I appreciate your well-written retraction. Perhaps a follow-up on the stressful process of college admission would make for a good reflective piece. My heart goes out to this teen and her family. What may have started as a small, but desperate way to fulfill expectations for a high achiever, seems to have gotten the better of her. Let's hope that people focus on supporting her with forgiveness and with assistance in finding a way forward. Also, it would be disappointing if other schools hold this against her. I wish her the best.

Barry Visel
Sat, 07/01/2017 - 7:45pm

A healthy skepticism, and checking the facts is always a good thing for everyone to consider, especially the media. Having counterpoints to all your 'guest commentary' articles would also be appreciated.

Sun, 07/02/2017 - 5:48am


Earl Newman
Sun, 07/02/2017 - 10:28am

Considering all the real needs of youth for quality in education the Bridge misspent its resources by publicizing the story in the first place, true or false. Horatio Alger stories will do little to solve the problems of education in our time.

William C. Plumpe
Wed, 07/05/2017 - 6:44am

True but this is not an analytical piece meant to provide a solution but an attempt at
a human interest story to inspire and motivate. If the story were true how many young urban minority students might be motivated to overcome the odds and succeed? Even if the story is not true it is an attempt at something really positive and uplifting in the education debate and all too often those instances are few and far between. I do wish the story were true.

Robyn Tonkin
Sun, 07/02/2017 - 12:06pm

The situation pointed up dramatically by this retraction is the ridiculous emphasis placed on getting accepted to schools like Harvard. I went to the University of Michigan, as did my husband, and our daughter matriculated at U of Minnesota, Duluth campus and the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin campus, Madison. We are all glad we had the chance to go to college, which we paid for ourselves, except for my husband's VietNam era GI bill assistance, which was by no means a huge stipend. People are simply fixated on these fancy schools, another situation brought on by the internet. Everybody can decide where they would like to go by clicking on a web address. I have participated in so many conversations, and overheard many more, where parents of very limited means were extolling how their son or daughter got into a pricey private school. What the kid needed was two years at a junior college, and two years at a state school, because that's what the folks could afford. I participated in one conversation where a mother was still enraged that her daughter would not "try" to get into Harvard, and instead was happy with Champagne-Urbana. What's wrong with Illinois? What causes this foolish behavior? Too much watching "The LIves of the Rich and Famous"? Forget free rides at fancy colleges. Set your sights on something you can afford that will net you a career path. If you're really poor and smart with good grades, go for scholarships and grants at someplace with a realistic price tag.

Hannah Francis
Fri, 07/07/2017 - 2:42pm

Gilmore Girls

Sun, 07/02/2017 - 12:26pm

Do we put so much emphasis on people attending college, particularly ivy league schools, that a student feels the need to fabricate a story of acceptance? I wonder what, if anything, in the story was true. A follow up with the real story would be good, both to give the true story and to note that whatever this 18 year old student is doing is probably ok and should be noted.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 07/02/2017 - 3:35pm

I'll give The Bridge kudos for this retraction.

But the one thing that I was disappointed with, was how little attention was focused on this part of the story:

"When dozens of readers offered to raise money, Bridge contacted the family again and learned new information. Now, the family said the teen planned to attend a college in Michigan in the fall and transfer to Harvard later."


Just one sentence?

Doesn't this strike anyone as newsworthy that people took the initiative to freely donate on their own, without having some politician or lobbyist advocating just taking the money?

Friendly suggestion: This happens more often than you might realize.

Sun, 07/02/2017 - 4:39pm

Another Fake News story that seems to be rampant within the Media Industry in our country. Glad to see Bridge make a quick retraction.

Alan Stamm
Mon, 07/03/2017 - 11:52am

No, Mark. This wasn't fake news, which refers to deliberate deception.
Bridge fell victim to a hoax, despite diligent efforts to report accurately by interviewing five sources on the record, including two educators who admire the student.
It's wrong to suggest Bridge is untrustworthy when it actually was too trusting.

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 3:08pm

The only Fake News Channel, that openly and directly fabricates stories and data, is FOX News. Fox "News" is the ONLY national entertainment and conservative advocacy corporation that pretends to be a news reporting organization in order to sell advertising to a huge base of viewers who want their fact-less hyper-opinions enflamed on a daily basis.

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 4:24pm

The only real "Fake News" in America is anything about Trump.
Trump is a fraud, a liar and a huckster.

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 8:06pm

It is kind of funny and in a way pathetic how to some people everything always comes back to Trump.

Tue, 07/04/2017 - 10:16am

Isn't that the way Trump wants it? Everything comes back to him and he's the center of attention? How self centered and narcissistic can you get? Trump has absolutely no concept of public service and cares only for himself. And maybe it always comes back to Trump because regardless of what Trump or his toadies say many Americans like me do not agree with his brash, know nothing style and do not support his extremist agenda. So when Trump or one of his lackeys says "it's the will of the people" that is a convenient lie.

Ann kilter
Mon, 07/03/2017 - 5:15am

Nearly 40 years ago I was denied admission to the university of Michigan pre- nursing program. Michigan state did accept me. I've been a Spartan fan ever since. I'm glad they didn't accept any donations because that would have been fraud and a lot more trouble than a public lie. I feel for that mother. I hope this girl can get over this hump, and attend a local college with scholarships.

William C. Plumpe
Mon, 07/03/2017 - 4:21pm

Really too bad the story isn't true.
I do hope the student learns from this
and does get into a college because it appears
she really wants to go to college.
But I think she needs some counseling
and the high school she went to and Bridge
need to check things out to make sure.
All it takes is a confirmation phone call.
Remember to confirm all sources!!!