Everyone has the ability to fight for human rights and social justice, Jan French, the chairwoman of the department of sociology and anthropology, said Monday evening in the Last Lecture Series.

“We are all ordinary people with the potential to do extraordinary things,” French said.

French, in her speech titled “Life is an Improvisation: Human Rights, Beautiful Souls, and a Well-Lived Life,” used an example from the book “Beautiful Souls” by Eyal Press, which French said addressed why ordinary people said no to unethical orders.

One man in the book, Paul Gruninger, a police captain in Switzerland during the 1930s, allowed hundreds of Jewish refugees into the country illegally, French said.

Gruninger was fired and vilified once he was discovered, but he said that he felt it was his human duty to help those people, French said.

“The author of ‘Beautiful Souls’ reminds us: It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations,” French said. “But it is always possible.”

French urged audience members to be open to all possibilities, seizing opportunities even when they cause uneasiness.

“That is the very nature of improvisation,” French said. “It’s a balancing act between adventurous, ambitious, impulsive and knowing something about your tolerance for risk.”

Many of her own life choices were improvisations, French said. After graduating from Temple University as a first-generation college student, she took a job with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

She later went to law school, which led to a 15-year career in corporate law. She also improvised when she decided to focus her academic work on the rights of black and indigenous people in Brazil, she said.

“My watchword has been, since my days in college, if the thought of doing something makes my stomach churn, that’s a sign that I should do it,” French said.

French also dedicated her speech to last year’s speaker in the Last Lecture Series, Bill Myers, a chemistry professor that died in September from a brain tumor. Myers had retired in May.

Junior Noah Hillerbrand went to the lecture because his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, attended, and because he had heard about it through the Center for Civic Engagement as a Bonner Scholar.

He liked the idea that life is full of improvisation and taking advantage of opportunities, he said.

French was the fifth speaker in the University of Richmond Last Lecture Series. The series poses this question to lecturers: If you were to deliver a lecture that would be your last, what would you say? Past speakers include Julian Hayter in 2014, Joe Hoyle in 2013, and Rick Mayes in 2009.

Contact news writer Kay Dervishi at kay.dervishi@richmond.edu