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If you're like most people, you'll try out alot of distro's before you find the one you like. just pick one of the mainstream ones, debian, slackware, mandrake, suse, fedora -- whatever and get started. Really, aside from things like package management and such, they are all about the same and you can do the same things with pretty much all of them ( there are exceptions to that, but it's pretty much true).
the only thing I'll throw in, and this is for any distro you try, since development is one of your objectives, make sure you install everything development related you can find during the install, whether you need it right now or not. This will save you alot of time and headache down the road.
If you intend to use it for media center purposes, Gentoo has a lot of related software in portage. I also like the Gentoo style of package management and find the community very friendly and helpful. (I like to include myself in that part).
You will probably get a bazillion responses to this, as there are so many distros available, and so many people that swear either by or at a particular one. You've received some good suggestions here already, especially the one to find out what your instructor will be using, and load that.
With that said, some distros are easier for the newbie than others. Mandrake is free, and is tailored to the new user. I tried it, and it would have been my second choice.
The really 'easy to use' distros like Xandros, Linspire, Lycoris, Libranet, are all paid distros, but you get tech support with them as well. They all install very easily as well, and work immediately with a Windows network. I've used Xandros for several years, and you just can't beat it for an easy to install distro. However, it is also limited in what you can do with it, as there are few packages included with it. For the rank newbie, this is great, as it keeps things really simple. However, one will probably outgrow it eventually.
As Mandrake is free for the download, why not give it a try? Fedora is also free, but unless I am mistaken, it is Red Hat's 'bleeding edge' distro, and is often a beta program for their commercial offerings.
While I will probably get 'flamed' for this, you may want to avoid (at least to begin with) some of the 'lean and mean' distros like slackware, gentoo, vector, etc. They work well, but they are not geared to the novice.