I'm not much older than you, but I'll offer what I do know.
I set out at the end of high school/beginning of college to become a ski photographer, that was my goal. I owe a big portion of what small successes I've had to Newschoolers. I started posting, and shooting as much as I could. Soon enough I was covering events like Dew Tour for NS. I certainly wasn't making money then. Over the years, NS has opened a lot of opportunities via the network I've started to create.
A handful of years ago, I heard writing was a good way to get photos published. I thought I was a decent writer, so I gave it a shot.Today, I write far more than I shoot.
I graduated college a semester early while continuing to pick up freelance photo jobs, mostly through NS. The spring after I graduated was the most consistent freelance work I have done. I did okay, but not enough to live on comfortably. (if you want to know more about the financials, PM me).
Now, I work at evo in Seattle as an ecommerce assistant. I still do a lot of writing, most of which is content designed to drive organic search traffic to our website. I like to think I found a pretty good balance with this job. I still plan on doing some freelance work as it becomes available this winter.
I guess as far as advice, I'd say:
- Seek feedback, make yourself and your work vulnerable, really listen, never stop trying to learn
- Don't pigeonhole yourself, especially early on. Try everything, shoot photos, video, edit, write. I never thought I'd be a writer, but here I am.
- Networking is obvious
- College can definitely be helpful, but isn't the only way. Jamie (1337 on here), and I had very similar trajectories as far as setting out to become pro ski photogs. I went straight to school, got a business degree, dabbled outside of skiing, and found a job that's related to skiing and content. He didn't go straight into a 4-year college, shoots every day, has held marketing positions at ski areas, and is well on his way to being a successful full-time ski(focused) photographer. I think whether or not you go to school, it's still on you to make it happen.