‘Wisdom’ in international education guidance and counselling

‘Wisdom’ in international education guidance and counselling

Across departments and faculties, higher education professionals can offer counsel and guidance to international students. Consultations with academic advisors, international officers and programme coordinators can turn deep, meaningful and emotionally challenging for both sides. Advising students on fundamental life issues requires taking a stance regarding issues of identity and belonging, aspiration and self-esteem, and the difficult task of finding a healthy balance between sometimes conflicting needs. A new psychological discipline called ‘wisdom psychology’ provides promising directions on how to address fundamental life problems that may arise during consultations.

Wisdom psychology is a young branch of personality psychology that developed in the early 1990s, most notably driven by R. J. Sternberg, who was the first to conceptualise it as:

  • The successful coordination of thinking, feeling and wanting.
  • One’s ability to conciliate extremes.
  • A functional dynamic between knowledge and doubt.
  • A healthy distance between oneself and any problem that may present itself.

The ‘Berlin Wisdom Paradigm’ later defined wisdom most concisely as “expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life – with regard to difficult problems of life planning, life management, and life review”, did more research and revealed a number of interesting criteria that determine wisdom. Reading about this, I got inspired and wanted to share some thoughts and possible applications of this concept on the EAIE blog.

Rich factual and procedural knowledge about life

 This is about knowing ‘what really matters’ and ‘how things work’. To enrich a student’s understanding of a presented concern, you could ask a simple thought-provoking question:

  • What do you think can be changed here, and what, on the other hand, may have to be accepted, because it cannot not be changed (that easily)?

For answering this question, your student has to structure and evaluate important problem details and contemplate what they can actually do about it. Asking to think about aspects, on the other hand, which cannot be changed may stimulate reflecting upon real confines, such as administrative rules, financial obligations, academic demands, or even personal limitations including traits, strong inclinations, or disabilities.
Providing international students with wisdom-relevant factual knowledge may entail raising awareness about: attention and memory and their impact on learning; risks of biases in self and other judgment; conflict-escalation dynamics; and the role emotions play in motivation and decision-making. Instilling procedural knowledge may require talking about how to set attainable goals, how to reappraise and self-sooth, how to raise one’s own self-esteem, and how to act assertively.

Life-span contextualism

This wisdom criterion refers to a person’s ability to view and treat a problem in acknowledgement of time as an important contextual variable. Promoting ‘life-span contextualism’ may include raising awareness of: crucial developmental stages and transition periods in one’s life; the fact that there are time-windows during which one can only achieve certain goals; the fact that excess may lead to illness; and the fact that difficult challenges are opportunities for personal growth. To help your student to put critical life events in perspective and even facilitate decision-making, ask: 

  • How might this – an experienced or anticipated difficult situation – change in impact and meaning, if looked upon from an anticipated distant future in three, five or ten years’ time?
  • Which of your problem aspects will seem much lighter or even fruitful when evaluated in the context of time? What will you regret not having done? What will you be proud of?
  • Your student will have an easier time dealing with losses and failures, if encouraged to view them in light of the ‘big picture’ perspective. Accepting them as meaningful chapters or paragraphs in their life stories.

Value relativism

International students are exposed to a great variety of sometimes contradictory beliefs, life styles and expectations. Acting wisely in unfamiliar, diverse and conflict-prone social environments implies the acknowledgment of human differences and the willingness of multiple perspective-taking. Looking at a problem from various angles can lead your student to the realisation that seemingly incompatible viewpoints coexist as subjectively equally valid realities. Cultural orientation frameworks – like Hofstede, Hall, Globe Study, etc – that usually put value differences on a continuum between opposite poles are useful tools for sensitising students to value relativism. Try using the following statements when communicating with your students: 

  • Every perspective is inevitably limited; every approach has and always will have pros and cons.
  • It sometimes takes a whole lot of tolerance and emotion regulation to survive and thrive in a pluralistic world. In particular, if perceived value differences challenge some of your most dearly held beliefs and ideals.

Awareness and uncertainty management

The fear of the unknown has been haunting humans throughout history. It is a very powerful emotion that has been helping us to survive in the face of danger. The ‘unknown’ is full of surprises. Some may be good, some may be bad and even fatal. International students are by default faced with greater amounts of uncertainty than many of their domestic counterparts. Hence, every conversation with a student that raises uncertainty acceptance and honestly talks about the challenge of creating a functional dynamic between knowledge and doubt, trust and distrust, taking charge and accepting the inevitable, would be a worthwhile one to have, in my opinion.
Helping students make reasonable plans and embrace uncertainty may include exploring past situations in which they felt uncertain and how they dealt with them. It may also involve reflections about faith, a sense of coherence, and the confidence that things will fall into place eventually. I hope that you have found some inspiration here for your work with international students. I conclude my blog post with, of course, a wisdom quote:
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. — Confucius
Frank is Psychological Counsellor and Interculturalist at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany.