by CALLIE HARKINS
Since Aug. 19, an Instagram account titled @UMWConnect has garnered over 1,300 followers, promoting their own party: Project Mary. The account and Project Mary spurred concern from the student body about the safety and validity of the event that eventually reached the UMW Police Department.
Project Mary was held on Friday, Sept. 2 from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Tortilleria Mixteca, a venue located off of Emancipation Highway less than two miles from the UMW campus.
Ahtesham-Ul-Haq, a freshman at UMW and the primary organizer of Project Mary, created the @UMWConnect account in hopes of improving the nightlife of UMW students. But safety concerns, skepticism about the legitimacy of the event and unease surrounding the payment process from students led to low attendance at Project Mary.
“The turnout was not as I anticipated,” said Ahtesham-Ul-Haq. “We sold more tickets than the actual people who showed up, mostly because they were scared due to the rumors going on.”
Students questioned the validity of the account, and its owner, because of the event’s pay-to-enter policy. Tickets were sold in various tiers with the cheapest available listed at $10 and the most expensive at $20.
Cover charges are a rarity in Fredericksburg. Even among popular bars downtown, it is typically not expected that attendees must pay at the door. Questions regarding the motives of the organizers arose shortly after prices were announced.
“At first, I was intrigued. I was like, ‘Oh does he just tell us where the parties are?’ And then I saw you had to pay for it, and I was like, ‘Who asks you to pay for a party?’” said freshman Aly Geldart. “I feel like it’s a scam.”
After student leaders on campus flagged the event to the UMW Police Department, UMW Police began communicating with the Fredericksburg Police Department in an effort to assess the risks associated with the event, according to UMW Police Department Operations Lieutenant Bill Gill.
“The Operations Lieutenant had reached out to Fredericksburg Field Operations Commander,” said UMW Police Chief Michael Hall. “It was at that level, just in case, to have it on our radar.”
Project Mary was ultimately not interpreted as a threat by either agency involved in the assessment process. The social media presence allowed authorities to easily monitor what was currently happening and what was being planned.
“This particular event did not elevate to something dangerous because we had a lot of information coming very quickly,” said Hall.
The ease with which local police were able to log information about the event provided an additional layer of skepticism for potential party-goers.
“I thought it was immediately pretty sketchy since anyone could find it, including police,” said freshman Sofia Szczepankiewicz.
The account began promoting Project Mary on Aug. 19 with an Instagram post captioned, “SAVE THE DATE 9/2 PROJECT MARY.” Project Mary was labeled on the event’s website as the “biggest party of the year,” and attendees were told to expect “top DJs” and various giveaways.
Despite Project Mary being advertised as an event for the entire student body, many of the account’s followers are freshmen. Efforts to advertise the event extended beyond social media, as organizers slid fliers under the doors of freshman dorm rooms and appeared across campus to encourage students to attend.
The fliers and promotional material circulated in first-year dorms caught the attention of freshman residents and Resident Assistants.
“My residents thought it was fake and super sketchy,” said an RA in charge of a freshman dorm, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share this information while maintaining the trust of his residents. “There was a lot of hesitancy and a little bit of shade thrown towards those planning on going.”
The Weekly Ringer contacted 24 students regarding their experience attending Project Mary. Only one, a freshman on the men’s lacrosse team, was willing to be quoted under the condition that he remain anonymous.
“Basically it was terrible,” he said. “It was a really small crowd and I would never want to go to one of those events again.”
The organizers eventually stopped checking IDs at the front door and began allowing anyone in, even if they had not purchased a ticket. Despite this, the organizers nearly broke even on costs and are confident that they have the trust of the student body, Ahtesham-Ul-Haq said.
“I’m definitely happy now that people are willing to put their trust in us,” he said. “As they saw on Friday at Project Mary, we’re legit and we mean business.”
Ahtesham-Ul-Haq began attending UMW in 2021 but withdrew due to the death of a close friend. He re-enrolled at UMW for the 2022-2023 year.
“I lost my best friend 10 days before coming here,” he said. “I was just going through that phase and my escape was parties.”
Ahtesham-Ul-Haq said he hired people to help him run Project Mary and @UMWConnect.
“It’s really hard to manage the teams I’ve hired,” he said. “It’s like they don’t know who the UMW crowd is. For the past few weeks, I’ve been managing it myself.”
Gill cautioned students about attending events like Project Mary.
“From my experience, nothing good comes from these types of events, it’s a promoter and a business trying to make a quick cash grab,” said Gill.
Erin Landfair contributed to reporting for this article.