Former Prime Minister Helen Clark told students graduating from the University of Waikato today she learnt more from her losses than her wins during her challenging career.

Clark was presented with the university's most prestigious award - an honorary doctorate.

Clark, who grew up on a farm in Te Pahu on the outskirts of Hamilton, was among 389 students at the graduation at Claudelands Event Centre in Hamilton.

"I've always seen the Waikato as my home region so it is a special pleasure for me to be acknowledged by this university which I have visited so many time over so many years in a variety of capacities," Clark said after receiving the award.

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Clark's parents placed great importance on education and she said her 95-year-old father George would have loved to have attended but "he doesn't travel this far from Waihi Beach these days."

Two of her three sisters had graduated as teachers from Waikato University and were in the crowd.

Helen Clark waits for her doctorate with husband Peter Davis. Photo / Alan Gibson
Helen Clark waits for her doctorate with husband Peter Davis. Photo / Alan Gibson

She credited the good support both in her political roles and at the United Nations where she worked for the past eight years.

Clark had no regrets in choosing a challenging career where she had to contest senior leadership positions, which meant "always having to be on top of one's game".

"I know what it's like to win and I know what it's like to lose. The latter of course is the most character-forming.

"For my part I always took all the opportunities which were available and resolved to make the most of them. I've always believed that effort brings its own reward ..."

Clark said New Zealand faced First World challenges such as maintaining living standards, reduce the significant inequalities and improve the quality of the environment.

She called on universities to foster cross-disciplinary research to find the answers to the current challenges.

"Overall I am optimistic New Zealand will get it right."

It is not the first time Clark has received the title, previously being awarded one from the University of Auckland where she studied politics. She also received an honorary doctorate in laws from the University of Sydney last week.

Vice Chancellor of the university Professor Neil Quigley said Clark was one of New Zealand's most well-known and honoured politicians.