Zeanah Engineering Complex

Family Sees Zeanah Engineering Complex as a Landmark for Education

By Randall Brown.

For Eric and Elaine Zeanah, a deep respect for the importance of higher education has always been a way of honoring family. This ingrained personal tenet led them, together with the support of their children, to establish an $8.5 million endowment to fund educational opportunities within the Tickle College of Engineering.

The Zeanah Engineering Complex (ZEC) is the physical embodiment of the family’s commitment to engineering education at UT. Students join a legacy of engagement and success when they step into the complex, completing a circle that merges classroom and career experience. The family name over the doors of the complex honors their ongoing Volunteer effort.

Education has been, and always will be, the best path to our futures in life and society.”

Eric Zeanah, a 1984 industrial engineering graduate

Elaine Zeanah is a 1982 graduate of UT’s College of Nursing.

The family’s firm belief in higher education dates back to Zeanah’s grandmother, Hattie Weatherford Zeanah—born in Mississippi in 1888, but with Tennessee roots from her grandfather. At 16, she began studying at Blue Mountain College to become a teacher. She and husband James made sure to instill in their children an appreciation for the value of higher education.

Their children followed their lead to become an attorney, two engineers, and two school-system superintendents. Youngest son Paul Zeanah, Eric’s father, earned his chemistry degree at the University of Alabama and was recruited by the US government in 1950 to help pioneer research in commercial nuclear energy—before nuclear engineering was even a recognized degree. He built a 25-plus year career with General Electric, establishing safe commercial nuclear energy facilities around the globe.

Jessie Zeanah recognized that selecting the best educational opportunities for her children would be imperative for them to build success in life. They followed this guidance to UT and both earned degrees in industrial engineering (IE).

For 39 years, Zeanah has applied IE principles to design, develop, and manufacture products via his company, American Accessories International, LLC (AAI). Today, 96% of AAI employees hold college degrees—including 63% from UT Knoxville, encompassing seven different engineering disciplines. Students from UT and schools around the world have benefitted from AAI’s robust internship tradition.

“We’ve interned well over 100 students,” said Zeanah. “We’ve had students who, within months, were making formal presentations in front of multibillion-dollar corporations.”

Recent AAI interns confirm the benefits of integrating workplace and academics.

“Classes are about learning how to think and how to create possibilities,” said Megan Brubaker, a senior in the Haslam College of Business studying supply chain management. “Here, we’ve been able to see all the components that go into a project from design to marketing.”

“Doing research, ideation, working in innovations teams, seeing them communicate—all these are experiences that you don’t exactly get when you’re in the classroom,” said Hunter Thomas, a 2022 graduate in biomedical engineering who interned for a year and is now a project engineer at AAI. “The things that I’ve worked with here are lightyears ahead of anything we’d have imagined as an intern.”

“I have found myself reflecting on what a special opportunity it was interning at American Accessories International,” said Emily Carberry, 2020 graduate in industrial and systems engineering at NC State University. “It was such a positive experience for me. I returned to school a new person, feeling empowered as both an engineer and a leader; I feel I owe much of this to Mr. Zeanah and the AAI team.”

“Our hope is the AAI internship program inspires companies to do more and draws students’ attention to additional opportunity,” said Zeanah. “We tell our interns all the time for every American Accessories, there are hundreds of smaller, privately held companies that are providing unique services to the corporate world.”

The Zeanahs also hope their family name will remain synonymous with education, and that students who pursue an engineering degree at UT will take full advantage of the ZEC for advanced study and research.

“Having the opportunity to join so many caring alumni in contributing towards the evolution of the Tickle College of Engineering has been an honor,” said Zeanah. “Now, to witness this beautiful facility come to fruition for the benefit of so many students just goes well beyond all expectations.”

Having the ZEC as a keystone element for student recruitment, educational foundation, and encouragement continues years of similar Zeanah family support. Eric and Elaine Zeanah helped create the Wayne T. Davis Endowed Dean’s Chair, which allows the dean to quickly meet needs for new or critical initiatives. Their establishment of the Jessie Rogers Zeanah Faculty Fellow—named in honor of Eric’s mother—has helped support the research efforts of Associate Professor Stephanie TerMaath in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering.

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