Helen (Lena) Astin, a feminist scholar and longtime professor of higher education at UCLA, where she helped direct studies on women’s career development and the spirituality of college students, died Oct. 27 at her Brentwood home after a long illness. She was 83.
Her death was announced by UCLA, where she was a co-founder of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.
With her husband, Alexander Astin, who was also a professor of higher education at UCLA, she wrote “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives.” The 2010 book was based on findings from a study that followed 14,000 students through their first three years of college.
The study found that many students struggled with their religious beliefs and questioned them more during the college experience. It also found that students who described themselves as spiritual performed better academically, had stronger leadership skills and expressed more satisfaction with college.
“In some ways, the study has taken us by surprise,” Astin told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City in 2005, when initial findings were released. “In the past we, as well as other scholars, researchers and commentators, have spoken of today’s youths as materialistic, focused on self and very pessimistic about the future,” but many are “searching for ways to cultivate the inner self.”
Helen Stavridou was born on Feb. 6, 1932, in Serres, Greece, and grew up there during the World War II Nazi occupation.
She left Greece at 19 to attend college in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree from Adelphi University, a master’s from Ohio University and a doctorate from the University of Maryland.
She met Alexander Astin in 1954, when they were both doctoral students in psychology at the University of Maryland. They were married in 1956.
She was only the second woman to earn a PhD in psychology at the University of Maryland. She later said the sexism she experienced there led her to write “The Woman Doctorate in America” (1969), a study that contradicted a number of stereotypes of highly educated women, including the belief that they drop out of the workforce to have children and raise families.
Astin also wrote, with Carole Leland, “Women of Influence, Women of Vision” (1991), which examined the effect of the women’s movement on 77 prominent female leaders, including college presidents, professors and activists.
Besides her husband, Astin, who spent 29 years at UCLA until her retirement in 2002, is survived by two sons, John and Paul; and three granddaughters.