The Student Volunteer Army has been presented with the Anzac of the Year award to recognise the huge clean-up job students did in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.
It is the first time a group and people outside the military have been honoured by the Returned and Services' Association.
RSA chief executive Stephen Clarke says the award recognises the student army's significant contribution to the community during the quakes in 2010 and 2011. Dr Clarke says the students showed compassion, commitment and camaraderie - all Anzac qualities.
Thousands of students became members via social networking sites, pitching in after the devastating Christchurch quake on 22 February last year to clear silt from homes caused by liquefaction, bringing food to people and helping out where needed.
Student Volunteer Army founder Sam Johnson says the Anzac award is humbling, as they have been honoured alongside previous recipients who have done incredible things for the country and internationally.
He told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Tuesday over 10,000 people made up the volunteer army and the award represents "what it means to be a Kiwi".
Mr Johnson says it would be callous to compare the work of the student army to the Anzac soldiers who fought in Gallipoli, "but I think it's the same mentality - let's just get out there and do what we can in this situation."
"I've been in the limelight a lot ... it's so nice that it (the award) is not going to a single individual - it's going to a group of people who are bound together around a single purpose."
The Student Volunteer Army has regrouped as earthquakes continue to rattle Canterbury. Last year, some also flew to Japan to help dig out mud from homes in the north destroyed after a 9.0-magnitude quake triggered a huge tsunami in March.
Sam Johnson says he has had interest from around the world in the army's social media-based approach to volunteering and they are working on a template to be used by universities and other groups.
The Anzac of the Year award was presented by the Governor-General, Lieutenant-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, at Canterbury University on Tuesday night.
Earlier, the James Hight building housing the library was evacuated and searched following a security threat.