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New college, new city: It finally feels right

If there is one thing I learned this year, it's that life is about taking control.

Well, at least mine is.

The world has a funny way of pulling us lots of different directions, and if we don't pull back it's easy to get carried away by the most powerful or tempting tug.

This happened to me a year ago, when I fumbled my way to Ithaca College in upstate New York and decided to start what I hoped would be a successful college career and an amazing new life, thousands of miles away from the people and places I love.

I did OK at the "successful college career" bit, but the "amazing new life" was a much taller order.

If you followed my mishaps and misadventures last year, you may have noticed something I never meant to make so obvious. It was only after I came home for the summer and spoke with several readers that I realized that many had seen through my tepid jokes and anecdotes and realized that I was truly unhappy in my situation.

This realization both surprised and worried me. If I were a high school senior reading about my struggles with money, my constant transportation crises or the frigid weather that damn near killed me, going away to college would start looking decidedly less glamorous. I might have thought twice before choosing a school so far away.

This of course, was the opposite of my intention.

Going to Ithaca was at once the worst and best thing I have ever done. It was the worst in that I spent months in a place where I didn't fit in and was constantly searching for a niche that didn't seem to exist. It was the best in that it taught me lessons that have prepared me for this new chapter of my life. It was a testing ground for my adulthood, where I could make mistakes far away from the watchful eye of those who cared enough to judge me, where I was responsible for nothing but myself and my own actions. I let myself dangle, waiting to be carried away in the direction most natural and most comfortable, as the weeks wore into months, and I thought of nothing but home.

That part of my life is over. Now, it's time to take control.

I'm writing this from my new loft in the heart of downtown Chicago. Next week I start classes at Columbia College Chicago, the largest arts and media college in the U.S.

I'm studying -- you guessed it -- journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and editing. But Columbia is a much different kind of school -- I no longer have a discernible campus, I don't live in a dorm, I don't eat at a dining hall and I'll have to take the El train to class each morning.

I'm also closer to the people in my life who are most important to me: Paulina, who I've been dating for the better part of 3½ years (she now lives minutes away), and my family (my mom and her clan live in western Illinois, a three-hour journey by soccer-mom minivan).

I'm also now living in what has always been my favorite city, surrounded by people, culture, excitement and infinite opportunity. I'm still "away" at school, but I'm in a place that makes a lot more sense.

In summary, I chose to transfer to a school that is as different from Ithaca as it's possible to be. This illustrates my experience in New York better than anything else.

But the transfer process was hardly easy -- from the application to the transferal of credit to the housing contract, I was broadsided with obstacles like lost checks, unreturned phone calls and financial aid confusion. But as with the car I found myself fighting with all summer, I decided that the process of transferring to a new college was not going to defeat me -- that I would make phone call after phone call until I could get the system to work for me.

As I reported for work each morning as a summer intern at The Bee, it became my daily ritual to stay on top of the college process by making at least one phone call to the school until every receptionist knew my name and dreaded my voice. I requested due dates, negotiated payment plans, demanded information about my credit analysis and spoke to countless advisors.

Even as I was doing all of this, I was surprised at my own determination. Last summer I had just covered my eyes, largely ignored all contact from my college because I was too busy to stress about it, and hoped it would all work out in the end. Why? I was afraid of it, because I didn't understand it.

But I've learned recently that if I don't take control of -- and for that matter, responsibility for -- my own life, I will end up in some desperate situations.

So here it is -- take two, as my Princeton-bound friend Fallon calls it -- of my college experience. This year I'll undoubtedly run into all new flavors of people, places, awkward situations, and I stand ready and open to meet them all head-on. Am I nervous about what the future holds? Of course. But there is something about this place that makes me feel like I've finally done something right.

Because sometimes in life, we're given second chances.

Other times, we have to take them for ourselves.

Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago. This is one in a series of occasional columns about his college experience.

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