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Northwestern University

Paths: Christian Wistehuff

Christian Wistehuff ’87 became an advocate for educating Afghan women

Christian WistehuffChristian Wistehuff didn’t think much about Afghanistan until that September day in 2001, when he stood outside his office on Fifth Avenue and watched the Twin Towers crumble to the ground. 

“The hijackers had trained in Afghanistan. I remember that moment very clearly,” Wistehuff says. He also recalls thinking that if there were a peaceful way to prevent a similar event from happening, he’d eagerly sign on. 

Fifteen years later, Wistehuff is doing just that, as a board member and executive director of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. The grassroots education and leadership development program is working to create Afghanistan’s next generation of women leaders. 

Wistehuff first encountered the Initiative in 2012, when, after years of success in the corporate world, he found himself yearning for more personally meaningful work. A member of the organization’s board told him the Initiative was seeking a new leader. “I went back to that moment [in 2001], and I knew that this was what I needed to do,” he says. 

Wistehuff felt a personal connection to the Initiative. His mother had immigrated to the United States from Germany, and she and her siblings had been denied access to education during World War II. Their lack of education continued to disadvantage them during their years as refugees, well after the war ended. 

His global awareness expanded when he arrived at Northwestern in 1983. Initially enrolled at the Bienen School of Music, he soon came to know students from across the University — and around the world.  

“I wanted to be smarter about history and economics and politics. I fell in love with all these new ideas I was learning about. That’s how I came to Weinberg,” says Wistehuff, who transferred into the College and graduated with a degree in German language and literature in 1987. 

Wistehuff went on to earn a law degree and to work as an analyst of gaming legislation and hotel projects for a global hotel chain. “I had filed those thoughts about the Afghan people away after Sept. 11, and went on with life. But when this opportunity came up, it seemed serendipitous,” he says. 

Wistehuff credits his time at Northwestern for giving him the worldview and skills to lead a “community of like-minded souls” focused on building a network of strong Afghan women — many of whom are now taking their education back to Afghanistan.

“One of our graduates is now chief of staff to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and another one of our students founded the first community college for women in Afghanistan,” he says. Another student became an astrophysicist after learning English in a refugee camp. 

“This organization is starting to realize its full impact,” Wistehuff says. “Women are making more than contributions to Afghan society. They are making contributions to the whole world.” 

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