A Distinguished Professor Emerita of Higher Education, Senior Scholar at the Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, and psychologist, Dr. Helen Astin is widely known for her scholarly activism and research concerning higher education issues of women and minority students, as well as women’s career development. She began her career at UCLA in 1973, and contributed in several different capacities until her retirement from the University in 2002.
Born in Serres, Greece, in 1932, and having survived World War II, Dr. Astin’s early inclination towards science and math were discouraged due to the subjects’ association with male careers, specifically. However, the alternative option, teacher’s college, proved to become a transformative choice for Astin’s professional trajectory. Upon college completion, she moved to the United States to pursue her interest in Psychology via higher education in 1951. Her move eventually brought her to Ohio University in Athens, OH, were she earned her Master’s in Psychology, and then to University of Maryland for her PhD. At the University of Maryland, “she became the second woman to earn her PhD in psychology.” Such a rarity within her graduate program heightened her awareness surrounding educational sexism, and inspired Astin’s professional interest in studying women in higher education. She recalls in her oral history, “…that’s when I saw sexism really; the first time I encountered it. And I didn’t understand it.” And added, “I was the second woman in the whole program to get the PhD. So you can see that in those days, there were not many women, which prompted me later on to study women with doctorates.”
After marrying a fellow graduate student, Alexander Astin, Helen worked with the Commission on Human Resources and Higher Education as part of the National Academy of Science starting in the 1960s. Here, “she investigated talent development and the utilization of women in the workforce,” and gained much recognition in conjunction with the women’s sociopolitical movement in the United States. In 1970, Astin was tasked to chair the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on the Status of Women in Psychology. In 1973 both Alexander and Helen were offered professorships at UCLA. During her 29 year affiliation with UCLA, Helen Astin, in addition to her professorship, served as the Associate Provost of the College of Letters and Science at UCLA from 1983 to 1987, co-founded the UCLA Center for the Study of Women in 1989 with fellow faculty Nancy Henley, Anne Peplau, Kathryn Sklar, and Karen Rowe, and served as the founding director for the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
In addition to her UCLA ties, Astin served as a trustee of Mt. St. Mary's College since 1985, a trustee of Hampshire College from 1972 to 1979, served on the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, and on the Board of the National Council for Research on Women. In the American Psychological Association, Dr. Astin served on the Boards of Policy and Planning and Education and Training and has been president of the Division of the Psychology of Women. She has also served as Chair of the Board of the American Association for Higher Education. Helen Astin is also a “recipient of three honorary degrees and numerous other awards including the Howard Bowen Distinguished Career award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).”
“Dr. Astin's major books include: Women of Influence, Women of Vision; Human Resources and Higher Education; The Woman Doctorate in America; Higher Education and the Disadvantaged Student; Some Action of Her Own: The Adult Woman and Higher Education; Sex Discrimination in Career Counseling and Education; The Higher Education of Women: Essays in Honor of Rosemary Park.” Her current research interest lies in Spirituality in Higher Education, which has led her to “coauthor a monograph on the Meaning and Spirituality in the Lives of College Faculty, two reports (The Spiritual Life of College Students, Spirituality and The Professoriate), and a book entitled Cultivating the Spirit: How College can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2011).”
Dr. Helen Astin will be a panelist at the Celebrating Los Angeles' Women's Social Movements on February 24, 2014 at UCLA.
Radhika Mehlotra is a graduate student at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and a Graduate Student Researcher at CSW.