Eidi Sakewicz, a freshman, poked her head inside the drab, dwarfish dormitory room at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., and wrinkled her nose.
"It smells," she said and sighed.
Face it, college housing isn't the Ritz. But for many students, those first ugly impressions fade -- like that brown linoleum underfoot -- once they add their own touches, from Christmas lights to collages of family photographs, from artsy prints to anarchist fliers.
Interior decorator Alexander Messinger calls it a student's signature.
"If they put something of their own in the room," said Mr. Messinger, director of the interior design program at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, "then the space becomes their own."
Over time, he said, the symbols of a generation have changed. In the '60s, college students emblazoned their rooms with the sun, representing the environment, and in the '70s, the peace symbol TTC reigned. Today, most students identify with rock groups and sports heroes.
Since school started, college students have settled in and signed their John Hancocks all over the place.
"I'm trying to liven it up a little bit," said Ms. Sakewicz, 18, of Salem, N.J., as she unpacked.
She chose a traditional course, and the most common one: a colorful comforter (teal, purple and black), a nice rug, plants and posters. Ms. Sakewicz also freshened the room by opening the window.
In a nearby dorm, resident adviser Lee Heisman took a break from decorating the halls and settled into his high-back easy chair, covered in velvety pin-striped upholstery.
"Every year I've been here, I've tried to make it a home," said Mr. Heisman, 21, a senior from Cherry Hill, N.J. "I need that sense of security. . . . It's always nice to just come back to your home."
So, he put in wall-to-wall dark-blue carpet, added the chair and a sofa, its rough brown fabric covered with a white sheet, brought his own large bed and small refrigerator, hung a neon Light Schlitz sign from the ceiling and a couple of posters on the wall, and set up an impressive stereo system (with 3-foot-high speakers) against one wall.
"It's hard to have every aspect of home in . . . only one room," he allowed. "But you try to make it as close as possible. . . . The rug makes the room -- definitely."
At Temple University, freshman Michael Rothstein, a self-described anarchist, sat between walls plastered with mostly black-and-white fliers from A.Y.F. (the Anarchist Youth Federation).
"I'm real involved in political activism," he said. Behind him hung a typical poster: a mangled hand snagged in barbed wire. The caption read "Your country needs you." Mr. Rothstein, 18, of Broomall, Pa., said he opposed war, including the Vietnam War.
On one wall was a flier of a smiling President Bush. "Stop this man," it said. "Refuse and Resist."
The see-through plastic telephone had a sticker that read "The New World Disorder."
The floor was covered with scraps of a dingy brown rug. "The library was throwing them out," added roommate Andrew Milotich, 18, of Broomall. "So we recycled them."
On another floor, sophomore Christle Marks, 19, chose the cozy look. The room had floral print comforters, fluffy pillows, lots of thick throw rugs and a collage of family photographs.
"It's not hard to personalize these rooms," she said. "You come in and it's just the furniture. You have to do something. . . . This is your living room, your dining room. This is everything."
Ms. Marks, from Malvern, Pa., set up her bed as a daybed with plenty of frilly pillows, a place for her friends to hang out, she said.
Back in the suburbs, on Swarthmore College's campus, resident adviser Ryan Roderick spent two days creating an eclectic mix: posters, Christmas lights and lawn chairs in his dorm, known as the "country club" because of nearby tennis courts.
"I was really into it," he said, surveying his labors. "You can tell a lot about a person when you walk into their room." On his door, he pasted a collection of newspaper headlines that play off his name, such as "Ryan is showing his age." (He's 20.)
Inside, posters covered the wall: a woman in a green bikini hyping liquor next to grinning Buckwheat, a sultry Madonna next to "Boyz N the Hood." A footlocker, draped with a U.S. flag-motif rug, was the night stand.
At the end of the rectangular room, in front of bay windows strung with Christmas lights, Mr. Roderick, of Long Island, N.Y., set up two lawn chairs and a stereo system.
"I wanted to do things I normally wouldn't do at home," he said. "I try to do it as a showcase. So people come in and . . . go 'wow.' "